2024 will be a Year of Challenge and Triumph for the Semiconductor Industry
There is a debate in the semiconductor industry over whether Moore’s law remains viable. In a November 2023 article the Wall Street Journal reported that, “With transistor size now so small, the steady predictable progress that Moore’s Law described has come to an end, some say, as certain efforts approach the limits of economics and physics.” That story goes on to describe how some of the industry’s biggest players have not given up on Moore but are instead pouring their efforts into new ways to keep his law viable. As a result, and to paraphrase Samuel Clemens, reports of the death of Moore’s Law are greatly exaggerated.
What we are seeing from our perspective as a partner working with some of the biggest names in the semiconductor industry is the emergence of new chip designs that have taken a page from the evolution of our great urban centers: when you run out of surface area, start building up. And just as architects like Lamb, Burnham, and Shreve combined steel and stone with novel engineering techniques to transform the New York City skyline in the early 20th Century, today’s chip designers are transforming the digital landscape by building equally impressive 3D structures at nanoscale.
Zero Tolerance for Error
To build the high bandwidth memory (HBM) and other specialized chips required to meet the demands of today’s applications in areas like artificial intelligence means building a wafer that has 232 layers, boring microscopic etching chambers through to the bottom, filling each with metal, and doing so with such precision that wafers can be stacked so that the etching chambers are perfectly aligned. Working at such a small scale means there is zero tolerance for errors of any kind. If the holes are not absolutely straight; if there is any stray arcing during the process; or if impurities enter the process, a chip’s performance will be compromised (if not ruined) because its yield is not optimal.
Mott filters make this possible. Our novel metal alloy and porous ceramics can handle the use of new and challenging process materials without particle defects or causing adverse reactions with the different gases used to make the deep structures required for these complex and exacting chip architectures. The precision required to accomplish this delicate task requires that each device structure involved be engineered to exacting specifications—to tolerances as small as a nanometer, about the diameter of a DNA strand—and operate with complete reliability.
Where our filters are involved, the materials and construction must ensure consistent pressure and flow while eliminating particles from over 35 types of specialty gases (some toxic, corrosive, flammable, etc.) as small as 1.5 nanometers—less than 10 silicon atoms. And they must perform at that exact level time and time again. What’s more, as the process tools used to fabricate these semiconductor chips evolve, the components must evolve with them. That’s where our excellent Customer Innovation and R&D engineers, rapid prototyping, and scalable manufacturing expertise comes into play. Working alongside our partners in the semiconductor industry, including fabs and our fellow members of the semiconductor supply chain like gas and material suppliers, and process tool OEMs, we understand the challenges and are part of the solution.
A major challenge to achieving the kind of accuracy, durability, and reliability needed to perform in high precision processes is understanding the way certain materials interact with the components used in those processes. If a certain gas is used, the components it encounters cannot cause any type of reaction that would contaminate the product, introduce errors to the process, or put worker safety at risk. These are all considerations that must be accounted for and mitigated.
Furthermore, every component (such as our filters) involved in semiconductor manufacturing must be engineered to operate in a hostile environment without suffering degradation. For example, metal precursors used to create connections and conductive pathways on each wafer are often corrosive with very low vapor pressures making them extremely sensitive to temperature changes. The design challenge for advanced gas filtration involves minimizing pressure drop to maintain the vapor state of these delicate precursors, while also maximizing flow rates and particle capture, and avoiding adverse chemical reactions. This ensures the uninterrupted, high-purity operation of the semiconductor manufacturing process.
Consistent Supply Chain
One of the biggest issues facing the semiconductor industry continues to be related to snags and slowdowns in a very intricate global supply chain. Not merely a challenge of shipping finished product from fabs to industries such as electronics, communications, automotives, defense and aerospace, and manufacturing, there are myriad suppliers of materials, technologies, and components used to make chips. Often these involve high-demand rare earth elements.
The efficiency and precision that our products help to enable means a more consistent quality that maximizes chip yield while also minimizing the instances of defects that can result in expensive scrapping that occur when batches of finished product are unfit for use. When every step of the fabrication process is functioning at a high level, it means that more chips can be delivered to the market more reliably and on time.
Another trend affecting the semiconductor industry is a shortage of available talent beyond software and electrical engineering, but in “hard” technologies like chemistry and metallurgy as well. Highly skilled people are the most important part of any organization, and in the semiconductor industry they are the engine that keeps production and innovation moving forward. One thing that helps with attracting and retaining the best people is a stable work environment where smart and ambitious employees recognize they have the best chance at achieving their professional goals. Organizations that push the boundaries of what’s possible attract the best and brightest.
An important factor in alleviating the talent shortage is establishing a network of partner organizations that share a common vision and strive to be excellent in their individual areas of expertise, thus complementing their own resources. Mott Corporation is recognized as an exemplar of excellence in advanced manufacturing, and our team thrives on the challenge of doing for our customers what has never been done before. We made our reputation in the semiconductor industry by proving ourselves a reliable partner capable of designing to our customers’ specifications, rapidly delivering and testing prototype components, and manufacturing our products at the quality and scale needed.
We see bigger and better things for the semiconductor industry in the coming year because that is what the world demands. 2024 will be a year of challenges and triumphs, and Mott Corporation will play an important role in the innovations that make it possible. We are proud of our legacy in this industry, and we are proud of what we continue to contribute for the success of our customers.