November 4, 2014 7:00 am JST

Japanese makers still lead world in photolithography technology

MASAHIDE KIMURA, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Japanese makers have lost their luster in the semiconductor industry in recent years. But for semiconductor production equipment and materials, some Japanese manufacturers are still strong, particularly in the area of photolithography technology for making substrates.

     Major camera makers Nikon and Canon are renowned in the industry for their photolithography equipment, while Tokyo Electron has strengths as a semiconductor coater and developer. Other Japanese makers take the lead in light-sensitive material called resist, photomask and light-source technologies.

     Gigaphoton, based in Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo, is one of the world's two major makers of the excimer laser system for semiconductor lithography. The other is Netherlands-based ASML. "Our market share was less than 10% in shipment volume when we established the company in 2000, but it grew to about 50% in 2008," said Tatsuo Enami, an executive officer and general manager of sales at Gigaphoton.

     Currently, Gigaphoton's market share is at around 40%. The company says it will aim to raise that share over 50% by boosting the efficiency of its light-source technology.

     Major construction machinery maker Komatsu, the parent company of Gigaphoton, set out to develop excimer laser technology in 1980. Back then, the technology was designed to measure the combustion of a construction machine's engine, the company said. But now, excimer lasers are used as a light source indispensable for semiconductor lithography.

     Developing light sources can greatly influence how small semiconductor chips can become. ASML leads Gigaphoton in next-generation photolithography technology, Extreme Ultra-Violet (EUV) light sources, but industry observers say that Gigaphoton's technology will be necessary for generating higher power outputs.

     A number of world-class photolithography engineers have recently joined Gigaphoton, helping to beef up its talent pool.

     At a time when chip makers are said to be reaching their limits of chip miniaturization, it remains to be seen if the company can shed some new light on the direction of the semiconductor industry.

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