On the whole, 2019 was a very interesting year for the global semiconductor industry. After a record-setting 2018, the market saw a decline caused by a softening memory market, coupled with an uncertain geopolitical climate. The U.S.-China trade war, in particular, has impacted semiconductor equipment suppliers based in the United States.
On the positive side, China continued to invest in a self-supporting semiconductor ecosystem, while technology megatrends like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and 5G drove developments in both front-end and advanced packaging technologies. This helped create business opportunities for materials and equipment suppliers.
Unrelated to the market decline, but also impacting equipment suppliers, is an industrywide push to be more environmentally aware. For example, top-tier semiconductor manufacturers are taking steps to reduce the amount of sulfuric acid (H2SO4) waste produced during wafer clean processes and have charged suppliers with finding the answer.
At ACM Research, in our quest to become a leading global provider of semiconductor equipment, we have factored in all of the above conditions to plan for growth in 2020.
The Zero Waste Challenge
As feature sizes continue to be reduced, wafer cleaning has become one of the most unsung yet critical wafer processing steps. It is performed up to 200x between process steps. And 90% of all cleaning steps use wet wafer processes because they are more effective than dry in achieving surface cleanliness and smoothness.
This has resulted in a significantly increased use of sulfuric peroxide mixture (SPM) in both wet bench and single-spray tools. SPM wet bench tools cannot meet the requirements of advanced nodes less than 28nm, nor 3D structures, so most cleaning steps have been replaced by single-wafer high temp SPM cleaners, consuming high amounts of SPM and creating more waste.
This sulfuric acid waste is what manufacturers are trying to restrict. Nearly all of the world’s top tier semiconductor manufacturers and foundries have published aggressive targets for 2020 and beyond, citing between 90 and 95 percent recycling of solid waste, and near-zero hazardous chemical waste to landfills.
ACM Research’s solution to this dilemma is the Ultra-C Tahoe Cleaning System for photoresist stripping and advanced cleaning, recently introduced to the U.S. market. It uses a two-step approach to optimize the advantages of wet-bench and single-wafer cleaning. First, the wafers are run through a batch cleaning step in the wet bench module. While still wet, the wafers are transferred to the single module for further cleaning. No H2SO4 is used during the single-wafer step, thereby reducing energy use and minimizing waste.
Growth in 2020
Established in Fremont, California in 1998, we opened our Shanghai Operational Center in 2006 to establish our customer base in China, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines. As a result, you’ll find our wet bench and single-wafer cleaning systems, as well as our electrochemical plating tools, on the lines of top-tier semiconductor and memory manufacturers, as well as OSAT providers throughout the region. In 2017, we completed our NASDAQ IPO in the U.S., and in 2019 we ramped our U.S. team and capabilities. Our goal for 2020, therefore, is to grow our U.S. customer base,
Our pending IPO in China will help solidify ACM’s position as a key local player in China while helping to fund the continuing development of our world-class capabilities. We believe being listed in two stock markets will allow us to scale our business in mainland China, and also open up broader opportunities in the U.S., Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Europe. A key element of strategy for growth in 2020 is to be close to customers, world-class engineering talent, our supply chain, and our investors. In 2020, we will continue supporting our fast-growing customer base in China, while simultaneously scaling our efforts in the U.S. by offering differentiated, leading-edge technology supporting advanced nodes, 3D memory, and wafer-level packaging.