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AMEC Sets Sights On GaN Lighting

As MOCVD tool makers hang on for the LED upturn, an unexpected entrant from China is hoping to muscle in on the market share. Compound Semiconductor looks at AMEC's master-plan.

From dielectric etch to MOCVD tools: AMEC hopes to compete with the likes of Veeco and Aixtron with its Prismo D-Blue.

Earlier this month, semiconductor equipment manufacturer, AMEC, launched its multi-reactor MOCVD cluster tool. At a time when equipment sales from Western mainstream suppliers, Veeco and Aixtron, have stalled on the back of the sluggish LED market, such a move could spell business suicide. Dr Zhiyou Du, senior vice president of AMEC, thinks not.

“Even though we have a recession right now and the LED market it low, we strongly believe the market will pick up by next year," he says. “As a newcomer, this is the best time to enter the market. The customer is under less pressure to produce and has time to evaluate the tool."

“[The downturn] gives us about a year to qualify the tool with the customer and have our tool ready for the upturn," he adds.

So ready or not, what exactly is AMEC is offering? Set-up in 2004, based in Shanghai and widely regarded as China's most successful chip-making equipment supplier, the company's main business line to date has been dielectric etch tools for semiconductor manufacturers.

Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in funds from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Qualcomm and Samsung Ventures, AMEC has released etch tool after etch tool, all of which have been steadily adopted by Asia-based chip makers.

Now, the business has set its sights on the solid state lighting market and introduced “Prismo D-Blue", a MOCVD tool for high-volume production of GaN-based layer structures.

As Du explains, the tool is based on a four-reactor cluster architecture reducing its footprint by at least 30% relative to competitors' single-reactor tools. The four reactors can be controlled independently, with each processing up to 54 two inch wafers depending on the batch configuration.

Two-inch wafer trials have demonstrated impressive thickness uniformities; 0.4% wafer-to-wafer uniformity and 1% within-wafer uniformity. And moving to larger wafer sizes could be relatively easy.

“We have some uniformity issues right now, but in general the hardware of the system will be the same, it will just require a little bit of process tuning to get the uniformity right," says Du.

AMEC is sticking with GaN layers, and doesn't intend to develop tools for arsenides and phosphides. And crucially for the relatively new China-based LED manufacturers, the team has focused on ease-of-use. While the chamber of a competitor's tool has to be opened and the shower head cleaned after every batch run, AMEC's tool doesn't.

“Operators just don't want to do this," says Du. “The industry is getting more automated and demanding more consistency."

And as Du adds, the software has been designed using semiconductor industry standards creating a 'very user-friendly' interface. “This is a very stable, repeatable and reliable tool that customers can use," he says.

The company will first focus on the short-term opportunities in China and then the rest of the Asian market, with Europe and the US coming later. Du is certain LED makers will be ready to invest come 2014, saying: “Already we have seen signs from first tier fabs in Taiwan... we are more optimistic than we were at the beginning of the year."

So should Veeco and Aixtron worry yet? Probably not. As IMS Research analyst, Alice Tao, points out, the big two currently hold more than 90% MOCVD market share and are the only MOCVD suppliers recording multiple sales over consecutive quarters.

But looking to the future, she believes AMEC and other Chinese competitors may be able to seize several opportunities.

As part of its “Twelfth Five Year Plan" running from 2010 to 2015, the Chinese government identified the large-scale adoption of MOCVD tool as a priority; subsidies to domestic suppliers may return. And China has the largest demand for these tools; overcapacity still exists but as the market picks up, replacements from China-based tool makers may be favoured.

And Chinese tools may be cheaper. Tao cites some Chinese equipment suppliers as saying home-grown tools could be up to 40% cheaper but questions running costs. Meanwhile AMEC expects overall cost of ownership of its product to be around 20% lower than 'industry-leading' tools.

Still, the company has several milestones to reach before it can begin to rival the industry heavy weights. Yield figures are not yet available; as Du says: “We're not running at production levels yet... but will have numbers in a month or so."

And results from four inch wafer trials, and beyond, have yet to surface. Again, Du says his team has achieved pretty good results, but is working on tuning the process.

But as Tao told Compound Semiconductor: “I've talked to AMEC and they seem very confident. They are successful in the semiconductor industry, so it's possible that they might be able to compete with Aixtron or Veeco in the near future."

Indeed, the tool is currently available for beta evaluation at customer's LED production lines. As Tao concludes: “We still need to hear from the real users about the performance of these new tools and this make take a longer time."

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