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.

Musings of a Gentleman Scientist