Innovation is the lifeblood of the semiconductor equipment industry, and our tools must evolve and mature as quickly as the devices they produce. In fact, leading-edge tool sets need to add new capabilities about every 12 to 18 months. These technology advances typically involve a number of parts changes and reliably validating the success of those changes is not simple. As a result, development cycle time and costs to design, build, and test new parts nearly always gate the pace of innovation. The application of 3D printing may offer a solution.
3D printing technology uses a computer-directed process to make three-dimensional objects, adding thin layers of material one at a time. Since the molds and machining processes used in traditional manufacturing are not needed, this technology enables new designs to be prototyped quickly for testing and potentially at lower cost. For example, a multi-nozzle assembly for a wafer-cleaning system might require three weeks of fabrication time in a conventional machine shop and cost ~$1,500. With the 3D printing approach, the turn-around time for manufacturing drops to less than two days and the cost to ~$500.
This technology is already in use for medical, automotive, aerospace, and even fashion applications. So what are the challenges with applying 3D printing in the semiconductor equipment industry? One concern is whether the types of materials required will be available since the parts may need to operate in hostile environments, where they could be exposed to caustic chemicals or high temperatures. The final parts produced must also be ultra-clean and have extremely smooth surface finishes.
Although 3D printing cannot yet deliver the precise specifications needed without some additional conventional processing, the technology is continuing to develop at a rapid pace. The demand for quick-turn prototyping in the semiconductor equipment industry is fueling some of this development activity. The hope is that this innovation may lead to 3D printing playing an important role in the development of semiconductor equipment by offering faster, more cost-efficient parts prototyping.