Updated: May 3, 2022
The ongoing, much-lamented semiconductor shortage continues to wreak havoc across industries, affecting the production of everything from household electronics to automobiles significantly.
The causes of the shortages are multifold: pandemic disruptions to both supply and demand, sanctions against Chinese tech companies, and even the ongoing drought in Taiwan.
The shortage doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon. The record demand for all things with screens—laptops, gaming systems and such—that was originally driven by people staying home during the COVID crisis isn’t slowing down as the world emerges from its lockdowns. With demand for new cars now recovering too, the supply challenge has become critical.
But the problem is that adding new chip-making capacity the “old-fashioned” way is horrendously expensive and time-consuming.
“It takes quite a while to build new foundries—and when there’s a shortage like there is right now, that’s a long tail to get past."
A chip fab, the super-high-tech manufacturing facilities that produce semiconductors, can cost $10 billion to $15 billion to build, and can take several years to get up and running. While the ever-increasing demand for microchips means more fabs will be needed, they’re not the answer to our immediate supply problems. For that, we have to find ways to get more chips from current capital assets.
That’s where metal 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM) comes in. It can help improve existing fabrication processes in several ways. 3D Systems Corporation, headquartered in Rock Hill, South Carolina, has collaborated with the semiconductor capital equipment industry for over 20 years. “Quality, speed, and performance are all factors,” said Scott Green, Principal Solutions Leader at 3D Systems Corporation. “It takes quite a while to build new foundries—and when there’s a shortage like there is right now, that’s a long tail to get past. Meanwhile, we’re trying to pack more and more transistors onto a single die. Today, they might measure three to five nanometers, where just a few years ago the smallest was 14 nanometers.”
So the focus turns instead toward how to get more and better chips out of existing fabs. AM brings a host of potential improvement solutions to the table for equipment designers and manufacturers by eliminating constraints inherent in legacy machining and parts production methods.
One example is in wafer table thermal management for chip lithography. The wafer refers to the silicon disk from which numerous chips will be produced, and lithography refers to the printing process that etches the microcircuits into the silicon. “The cost and complexity of lithography is comparable to jet engine production,” Green explained. One critical aspect is that the wafer temperature must be tightly controlled during all aspects of lithography, and this is done with cooling channels built into in the wafer table that holds it for lithography. AM allows for optimized design and construction of the cooling channels for the most uniform and efficient cooling, and also allows for parts reductions and faster turnaround. “When you convert that to AM, you can scale much faster,” Green said. “Currently there are five- or six-part components that are brazed together. They have a five- to six-week lead time as well, and any design change has a huge impact. With AM, it’s a digital manufacturing process that handles design changes immediately, and you can print single monolithic parts. A huge chunk of knowledge goes into it, but once it’s done, it works well and scales immediately. It streamlines the whole supply chain process, which is critical at a time like now.” The improvements in thermal management can improve semiconductor equipment accuracy by one to two nanometers, while improving process speed and throughput, leading to more wafers processed in a given production time.
Other parts of the semiconductor manufacturing process can be similarly improved. Fluid and gas manifolds are another example. Traditional manufacturing of these leads to erratic flow, dead zones, leakage and vibration. Metal AM allows for optimization of flow path and connection points to eliminate these problems. Structural components of the process machinery can similarly be optimized for rigidity, parts reduction, and weight savings. “Equipment manufacturers come to us with the description of their problems, and we can help them develop the whole new chain—design, print, and post-process for the optimized designs,” said Green. “AM is a very real and valuable tool, especially for high-tech applications. Where the best possible function is critical, AM is a very strong option.”
A final advantage is bringing production back to U.S. shores. There has been tremendous attention focused on the fact that much of our semiconductor industry has gone overseas, including to potentially hostile nations. “Check out the CHIPS for America Act,” Green said. “It’s focused on bringing more foundry work back to the U.S., repatriating our production. It’s about protecting our economy and security. And it also ensures U.S. ownership of the design and the fab knowledge. We want to help create high-paying, high-education jobs here, as well as the high end of the blue-collar market. The stakes are high.”