Copper Interconnects Exploding Into 2011 - TheStreet

The long-awaited

transition to copper interconnects

for memory devices skyrocketed in 2009 and will impact nearly every sector of the semiconductor equipment market into 2011.

While the overall semiconductor equipment market decreased more than 40% in 2009, equipment directly tied to the copper interconnect part of semiconductor manufacturing decreased only 8.7%.

In late 2006,

Micron

(MU) - Get Report

became the first DRAM vendor to produce commodity DRAM with copper, rather than traditional aluminum, interconnect.

Elpida

followed a year later. The adoption of copper in memory devices is currently under way, and all memory suppliers, led by

Samsung

, spent huge sums of money upgrading as many of their lines as they could to copper. This change had an important impact on purchases of copper deposition equipment and materials in 2009.

The impact of this transition on processing equipment was most obvious in equipment used with traditional aluminum interconnects. For example, the high-density plasma CVD sector (HDPCVD), which is used for depositing dielectric films, saw revenue drop 72% in 2009. Metal etch equipment revenue registered a similar drop. On the other hand, equipment used for copper interconnects exploded in 2009.

Copper is deposited by electrochemical methods, far different from the vacuum-based methods to deposit aluminum interconnections.

Novellus

(NVLS)

has dominated the market since 2002, and in 2009 held an amazing 85.6% market share.

Applied Materials

(AMAT) - Get Report

, which has been in the market since 1999, acquired Semitool in late 2009 mainly in an effort to get into the nascent three-dimensional integrated circuit (3-D IC) business.

Now we hear that

Lam Research

(LRCX) - Get Report

is set to enter the copper deposition market, according to Jagadish Iyer, an analyst with Arete Research. I ask myself why?

Some years ago I was asked by Lam to give a keynote presentation at its annual meeting in Taiwan for customers. I remarked to Lam executives that I felt the company needed to get into other market sectors as it was only a plasma-etch company. I was told Lam "wanted to do one thing and do it best." Fair enough.

According to our data, Lam had a 41% share of the $1.9 billion plasma-etch business in 2009, competing with AMAT,

Tokyo Electron

and

Hitachi

( HIT). Tokyo Electron was a distant second with a 28% share in the overall business. In the dielectric plasma-etch sector (the other two sectors are metal etch and polysilicon etch and Lam led both sectors in 2009), the primary method etching grooves in the silicon dioxide for copper interconnect technology, Tokyo Electron led in 2009 with a 46% share, ahead of LRCX with a 34% share.

A short time after my discussions with Lam, the company initiated an "adjacent-market growth strategy." Its acquisition of SEZ in 2008 in the single-wafer clean business has paid off handsomely. Around the same time, Lam acquired the copper deposition technology from

KLA-Tencor

(KLAC) - Get Report

when it divested its position in its deposition effort, Blue29, in 2006. But with a market dominated by Novellus on the front-end copper interconnect business, Applied Materials with a 70% share and Nexx Systems with a 25% share of the back-end packaging business, I don't understand Lam's strategy.

Robert N. Castellano, Ph.D, is President of The Information Network, a leading consulting and market-research firm for the semiconductor, LCD, HDD and solar industries. Castellano is internationally recognized as one of the leading experts in these areas. He has nearly 25 years of expertise as an industry analyst. Castellano has provided insight on emerging technologies to many business and technical publications, including Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, The Economist, Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and corporate events. He has over 10 years' experience in the field of wafer fabrication at AT&T Bell Laboratories and Stanford University before founding The Information Network in 1985. He has been editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Active and Passive Electronic Devices since 1985. He is author of the book "Technology Trends in VLSI Manufacturing," published by Gordon and Breach. His book "Solar Cell Processing" was published in 2009 by Old City Publishing. He received his Ph.D. in solid state chemistry from Oxford University.