13 March 2012

Should Europe be thinking 'outside the box' about a 450mm fab?

The 450mm manufacturing era is approaching; five of the world's largest semiconductor manufacturers have combined under the banner of the Global 450 Consortium to build a pilot line in the US and get the technology ready for production.

It is far from a trivial development; the transition cost – developing the technology and building the pilot line – could run to $40billion.

As the price tag suggests, manufacturing on 450mm wafers is going to be the province of the largest companies. And even these giants of the semiconductor industry – such as IBM, TSMC and Intel – will not be constructing such facilities with abandon; it is believed there may only be 15 such fabs built. But, then again, it was once claimed there would only be a need for five computers.

Of the potential 15, TSMC and Intel may have six between them. But will any be built in Europe? And should we be worried if there isn't one? Some observers believe we should be thinking outside the box and grasping the opportunity. While advanced semiconductor manufacturing is drifting away from Europe slowly, there is a strong base of equipment manufacture and technology development. The thinking goes that if Europe – one way or another – doesn't get involved with 450mm development, those companies and organisations will go where the action is. And that will further weaken Europe's position in the electronics industry.

A report currently being considered by the European Commission suggests that it should fund the construction of a 450mm fab and use its political muscle to, effectively, 'knock the heads of Europe's semiconductor companies together' to collaborate. Whether it could – or would even want to – herd cats is debatable.

But there's a new twist of fate; AMD has bought itself out of an exclusive supply contract with GlobalFoundries. The problem? Dresden has been seen as a potential site for a GlobalFoundries 450mm fab. Without AMD, GlobalFoundries may not move to 450mm any time soon. The knock on effect for Europe could be serious.

Graham Pitcher

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