All posts by Chris

SPIE Microlithography Conference, Day 2 (Tuesday night)

Before the last paper of the day is even over, one of the oldest and most anticipated traditions of the conference begins – the hospitality suite.
Flash back to 1987. Before Monsanto began genetically modifying your food they began an even more quixotic quest to build a better photoresist. The soon-to-be-spun-out group Aspect Systems made their debut at the 1987 SPIE lithography conference – and what a debut it was. Four or five of the best resist papers ever given poured from the Aspect chemists. It was a shock and awe campaign of science, and it had its intended effect. But the buzz didn’t end at the end of the technical papers that day. While the attendees were still debating the finer points of polyphotolysis, The Aspect Systems hospitality suite began. Little food with little plates – the good stuff too, not just cheese and fruit. Everyone was welcome and everyone who came in got a bottle of Aspect wine. To a cheap engineer it was expense account Nirvana. The conference had never seen anything like it, but it soon would.
The bar had been raised, and it was quickly met and passed by the competition. Over the next several years the resist companies vied for the most over-the-top party. Steel drum bands. Virtual reality games. Caviar on a company logo ice sculpture. An original Star Trek cast member drunk and signing autographs. Tuesday night was always the peak night for the finger food orgies. And this year was no exception. While some of the craziest parties have mellowed, they are still a conference favorite. I went to several, but the one I liked best was from a stepper company who, after celebrating a successful year of immersion tool introductions had the less-than-tasteful idea of using a New Orleans theme for the party. I think the irony was completely lost on the vast majority of hungry and thirsty engineers.
What ever happened to Aspect Systems? They ran out of venture funding options after the stock market crash of 1989, ran out of cash, and sold the company to Shipley (which later sold itself to Rohm and Haas). Most of the original researchers are still making photoresist better.

SPIE Microlithography Conference, Day 2 (Tuesday)

It is the second day of the week-long symposium, but the first day of its star attraction, the Optical Microlithography conference. That means one room was packed to overflowing, while the others felt a bit cavernous. Most of the papers were good, though a few were nothing but marketing fluff – it is inevitable I think. Tuesday was also the beginning of the two-day technical exhibit, aka company booths. It is amazing how much money a company will spend for booth presence at this conference without much possibility of a return on that investment. Sure, for a litho-focused company exhibiting here is much, much better than wasting your time at a SEMICON show; still it is mostly just a bunch of marketing types hanging around trying to keep their competitors from looking over the booth.

SPIE Microlithography Conference, Day 1 (Monday)

Candidate for Worst Paper Award
This conference is full of good papers. But it is also full of bad ones. There are the marketing papers, really just sales pitches for some product where their fear of giving too much information to the competitors outweighs their desire to inform their customers – or maybe they really don’t have any information to give. Then there are the authors that ran out of time, the experiments didn’t get finished, and so at most we get to see intermediate results (OK, I am guilty of having done that a time or two myself). Some presenters are just plain bad (but I admire anyone with the guts to get up there and try just the same). But today I saw the worst of the worst. I guy gave a paper on CD variations without showing a single CD value! How could this happen, you ask? He had 20 graphs showing squares, circles, and dots connected by wavering lines spread across the page, but not a single y-axis had a number on it. It is obvious what happened. His management made him erase all the numbers. Maybe they thought their stock price would go down if the world realized they were making chips that included CD variations. In any case, we saw an entire paper based solely on the analysis of data but without any data. It shouldn’t have been given. My advice to all would-be authors: If your bone-head manager will let you give a paper only if you don’t show any data, pull the paper. Our time is too valuable to listen to nothing.

SPIE Microlithography Conference, Day 1 (Monday)

Keynote or Key Node?
The conference began with three fairly good keynote talks. But Yan Borodovsky set me off, inevitably enough, by touch on one of my pet peeves. Intel has for several years now bragged about staying on a two year cycle of technology node advances while the rest of the industry says cycles are slowing to three years. They recently announced a working 45nm node SRAM and industry pundits hailed their technology lead. But what does that mean, exactly, a 45nm node device? Are there any 45nm dimensions involved? Historically (ten years ago or more), the node name was equal to half of the smallest pitch on the critical level (metal 1 usually contains the smallest pitch on the chip since it is the mask level that controls the die size). But that was then. Now, node names have marketing value. Press releases and market analysts extol the importance of getting to the next node. It was inevitable, I suppose – node names became too important to be left to the engineers to define. They’ve been taken over by the marketing departments. So how does Intel define the 45nm node? Very simple – it the technology used two years after they began what they defined as the 65nm node. There’s no magic in the node name, and no information either. So what about pitch, the smallest line/space repeating distance on the chip? It seems that Intel is reducing pitch by about 30% every three years. Go figure.

SPIE Microlithography Conference, Day -1 (Sunday)

Tomorrow begins the biggest event of the year for those of us with the arcane title of lithographer. In particular, “semiconductor lithographer”, since we don’t deal in art prints but rather work with $20M cameras that print features a few tens of nanometers wide. (But don’t confuse us with those nanotechnology types – we make products not research proposals). It’s the start of the week-long Microlithography Symposium, six separate conferences (five of them in parallel on Thursday!) with well over 150 papers a day and several thousand attendees.
This is the 22nd time I’ve been to this conference (don’t say it, I already know how old I am), and it wasn’t always like this. When I first came here in 1985 there were three separate conferences (and no parallel sessions – that headache didn’t start until the next year), each with about 30 – 40 papers. The number of attendees was a few hundred, not thousands, and we comfortably listened to papers predicting the inevitability of submicron manufacturing in the tiny Santa Clara Marriott. The first SPIE lithography conference (before my time, thank you very much) was exactly 30 years ago and had a total of 26 papers. Lithography was so much simpler then.
Growth of this conference has paralleled growth in the semiconductor industry. As we outgrew the Marriott (I remember breaks where it took 15 minutes just to push through the crowd to get to a bathroom), the conference moved to downtown San Jose and the Fairmont hotel. This became a favorite location with many after-hours spots within walking distance. I’m sure the locals were quite dismayed when whole sessions of geeky lithographers continued their technical discussions at the Gordon Biersch Microbrewery each night (Imagine the scene: “X-ray will never work, I tell you!” “What do you know – you’ve spent your entire career sniffing photoresist solvent.” “Oh yea, well at least I’ve actually made a chip that works!”). But we eventually outgrew this comfortable home as well and moved to the Santa Clara Convention Center. While the bar at the Westin hotel was a favorite, it just wasn’t the same. You couldn’t walk anywhere and there just weren’t enough restaurants for the growing crowds of hungry lithographers. Last year we moved back to San Jose and its bigger downtown convention center.
And so we begin. In the morning we start with the keynote speakers, and a massive week-long effort to cram as much information into our tiny little heads as we can possibly hold, hoping they won’t explode by Friday.

Lithography Blogging

I’m new to the blogging business, but as far as I know there are no blogs on semiconductor microlithography. Maybe there is a reason for that. Maybe no one needs or wants a blog on lithography. But maybe the time is right. We’ll see. In any case, this is the launch of my litho blog. Just in time for the biggest litho conference of the year, the SPIE Microlithography Symposium, February 19-24.
So here is my plan. At the end of each day of the conference, I’ll write a blog on what I think about what happened that day. Assuming that my brain is still functioning adequately to do so after a full day of technical papers. In any case, I hope to have something insightful to say, or at least something entertaining. If you’re interested, tune in.

In the news… Exxon again

Exxon Mobile is in the news again, as they released more information on their 2005 financial results. This one is interesting: in 2005 Exxon spent more money buying back stock than exploring for oil. So is investing in Exxon a better bet than investing in oil? Hmmm. Meanwhile, Exxon is not taking the bad publicity sitting down. They’ve been running full page ads saying, in effect, hey, other industries are better at making money than oil! Look at pharmaceuticals. Banking. Software. All higher margin. But none of these industries are selling commodity items. They are service or high tech (where the value comes from knowledge, not from the value of the raw materials). Commodity businesses, in a free and open economy, are supposed to be low margin. So why isn’t oil?
But the comparison to the drug industry is interesting. Drug companies spend far more money winning, dinning, and effectively paying doctors to prescribe their drugs than they do researching new ones. Here is why such behavior is similar to the oil companies. Taxpayers are asked to subsidize two of the worlds most profitable industries – oil and drugs – through massive tax breaks, below market rate (or free) royalties on government property (government land for drilling, government patents for drugs, etc.), relief from environmental regulations, and numerous measures to protect these industries from competition. Why? We are told that these subsidies are needed to promote oil exploration and drug research. Really? At cursory examination of the financials of these two industries shows how ridiculous that assertion is.
Company profits are good. Big company profits are even better. But profit gained by the subversion of a free market just means the consumer is in for a soaking. Fill-er-up.

In the news… Exxon-Mobil profits

A few days ago, Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest corporation, announced their 2005 financial results. And what results they were. Revenues were over $370B (that’s more than the GDP of Saudi Arabia) and profits were $36B. That’s over a billion dollars a day in revenues, and profits of over $100M per day! A pretty good year, though Exxon was quick to point out that the pharmaceutical industry was doing better (an interesting argument: “don’t complain, the drug companies are price gouging worse than us”). But I shouldn’t begrudge a company its profits – making money is a good thing. What gets me is I don’t understand why they were so profitable this year. After all, they experienced record high costs of their raw materials (crude oil) and major disruptions of the refining and distribution operations during the hurricane season. Shouldn’t that have hurt their business, at least a little?
It seems that the basic principles of a free market economy don’t apply here. And that’s the problem, with two parts. First, the US oil industry is massively protected and subsidized by our government (even more than most other big industries). When things go bad (or at least appear bad, since obviously 2005 was not a bad year for Exxon), we can count on congress to give tax breaks and price subsidies to the big guys. Second, and more importantly, us consumers are so hooked on oil that we have become total immune to price changes. Raise the price 50%, and we don’t lower our consumption one bit. That’s not what they teach us in Economics 101. Why do we act this way? Maybe we will change our oil consuming habits, it just takes us a while. I can only hope.