Shift to new chip-making technology could take years

Chipmakers around the world are gearing up to begin commercial production of semiconductors using a new technology that promises faster and cheaper chips, but the transition could take years to complete, the chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) cautioned Wednesday.

"I think we will have some technical challenges," said Morris Chang, TSMC's chairman, in a keynote speech here at the Merrill Lynch Technology Conference. He estimates that the transition to mass production using the new 90-nanometer (0.09-micron) process technology will take three years. The number used to describe the process technology refers to the size of the smallest feature that can be built on a chip.

"The ramp up (to mass production) is not as fast as the older generation (of technology)," he said.

When chipmakers made the shift from a 250-nanometer process to a 180-nanometer process, they took two years to complete the transition to mass production, Chang said. When the industry went from 180-nanometers to 130-nanometers, it required three years to make the transition due to complexities involved with the use of copper circuitry, he said.

With the 90-nanometer process currently entering commercial production, the principal technical challenge involves a material, called a low-k dielectric, that is used to prevent electrons from jumping from one circuit to another, a phenomenon known as electrical crosstalk.

The stakes are high for chipmakers. Shifting to more advanced processes allows more chips to be produced on a single silicon wafer, reducing costs while increasing clock speeds and lowering power consumption. However, as process technology advances and the size of transistors shrinks, the technical challenges associated with the shift to each new generation of technology will require more time to overcome, Chang said.

"I really think those new technical challenges are going to exist in every generation from now on, and as a result the three-year gap (between the transition to new technologies) may not narrow," Chang said.

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Sumner Lemon

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