Samsung Electronics is positively considering rolling out a next-generation DRAM using an early 10 nano process as early as the beginning of 2019 by constructing a dedicated production line with EUV exposure equipment in the Hwasung Semiconductor Factory Complex in Gyeonggi-do. Experts say that this strategy aimed to secure profitability while widening micro-process technology gaps with competitors in the booming DRAM market.
According to industry sources on November 28, Samsung Electronics is planning to start the construction of a new EUV-only line for EUV at a parking lot around the 17th line of the Hwaseong Complex and install several EUV and clean room equipment in the line as early as next month and start the operation of the line beginning in 2019. It is said that the Korean semiconductor giant is considering running the EUV-only line by linking it with seven current semiconductor production lines and conveyor belts among others. Samsung Electronics's Hwaseong Semiconductor Complex boasts not only DRAM and NAND flash but foundry (semiconductor production consignment) lines.
It seems that Samsung Electronics will use EUV exposure equipment not only for foundry processes but also for processes for memory semiconductors such as DRAMs. Samsung Electronics is expected to become the first company in the industry to produce early-10-nano DRAMs in 2019 using EUV exposure equipment.
Currently, exposure equipment that draws semiconductor circuit lines uses 193nm ArF excimer laser and liquid immersion and can draw a physically maximum 38nm circuit linewidth only at one time. In order to overcome the linewidth problem, semiconductor engineers strengthened the micro process to draw circuit lines by dividing circuit patterns two or three times but it is generally said that it is difficult to realize 10nm or less nm DRAMs. EUV exposure equipment can significantly reduce circuit linewidth by using 13.5 nm light waves shorter than visible rays, thus enabling a 10nm or less nm micro process.
"EUV exposure equipment is basically used for a 7nm foundry process, but some can be used for DRAM production," said an industry observer who is familiar with Samsung Electronics. "However, as the wafer production speed of the 10nm micro process is slower than the current patterning photo process, the key is whether or not Samsung Electronics will be able to find a way to profitability." Samsung did not disclose exactly how many units of EUV equipment they would install. However, according to the semiconductor industry, Samsung will install four to eight units.
Samsung Electronics has been using a double-quad patterning process which overlaps circuits multiple times with existing exposure equipment to mass-produce 18-nm or less precise DRAMs since October of last year. However, a plan to release mid-10nm DRAMs has yet to be made public. Although Samsung Electronics already prepared technology for mass production of 10-nano DRAMs, the company is reportedly pondering when to introduce EUV exposure equipment. The EUV exposure equipment produced exclusively by Netherlands ASML, gives Samsung Electronics an advantage in drawing ultrafine linewidths, but one unit of the EUV exposure equipment runs hundreds of billions of won and has a slow process speed.
Industry experts say that despite such shortcomings, Samsung Electronics is considering the use of EUV equipment in the early stage of mass production of early-10-nm DRAMs with the goal of maintaining its control over the market of mobile and server DRAMs. According to market researcher DRAMExchange, Samsung's shares in the markets of DRAMs for mobile devices and servers sat at 58.3% and 45.9%, respectively in the third quarter, both of which was eclipsed 45.8% of its share in the entire DRAM market. Samsung Electronics's Q3 operating profit margin arrived at 62%.
In this regard, competitors such as SK Hynix are facing similar problems. SK Hynix is planning to begin late-10-nm DRAMs in the fourth quarter of this year, and complete researching and developing a mid-10-nm DRAM in the latter half of next year. However, SK Hynix’s lips were sealed about introducing EUV exposure equipment.