SK Hynix has installed deep ultraviolet (DUV) photolithography equipment at its memory semiconductor plant in Wuxi, China, a move in line with its aggressive investment in semiconductor facilities despite a forecast that the ongoing semiconductor industry cycle would shift into a downturn in 2019.
The company has recently started construction of M16 Plant in Icheon of Korea and is considering building another plant in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, where the Korean government is pushing to create a new semiconductor cluster.
Some analysts say that the Korean chipmaker decided to introduce DUV equipment at its Wuxi plant, taking into account its relationship with Chinese authorities, which have launched antitrust investigations into foreign chipmakers.
According to the local media and the semiconductor industry experts on Jan. 1, SK Hynix held a ceremony in honor of bringing in DUV equipment to be used for DRAM production to its Wuxi plant in Jiangsu Province last month. The new equipment was NXT2000i from Dutch semiconductor equipment company ASML. The price of the product ranges from tens of millions of U.S. dollars to hundreds of millions. The introduction of the new equipment suggests that SK Hynix has started preparations to establish a microfabrication system after the expansion of its Wuxi plant.
The DUV process is less advanced than the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) process (10 nanometers) applied to M16 Plant in Icheon. However, ASML said that its DUV equipment can create synergy when it is used together with state-of-the-art EUV equipment NXE3400B. This suggests that SK Hynix could use bring in EUV equipment to the Wuxi plant in the future.
"Currently, EUV equipment is mainly used for system semiconductors," an SK Hynix official said. “It is premature to use EUV equipment for memory semiconductor production in Wuxi."
DUV equipment is currently used mainly for DRAM production. Micron also produces DRAMs with DUV equipment that uses an argon fluoride (ArF) light source. Micron believes that a DUV process is sufficient for memory production, given the small demand for memory semiconductors produced through an EUV process. Unlike DUV devices which require multiple patterning to achieve fine circuit patterns, EUV equipment can achieve microfabrication with single-etching. EUV equipment is more efficient but highly expensive. However, ASML said that NTX2000i installed at the Wuxi plant is its latest product that minimizes errors that occur during a patterning process.
ASML's NTX2000i was introduced for the first time in China. ASML virtually monopolizes the global market for photolithography equipment for semiconductor microfabrication, but does not sell its latest products to China. It was in May that ASML exposure equipment was introduced for the first time in China.
Some analysts link SK Hynix's introduction of the high-tech equipment to an antitrust investigation by Chinese authorities. "We have made tangible progress in the antitrust investigation of Samsung Electronics, SK Hynix and Micron," the Chinese government said in November of last year. Up to US$8 billion in fines can be imposed on them, depending on a decision by the Chinese government.
They note that while Samsung Electronics is shutting down its smartphone plant in Tianjin, Samsung SDI and Samsung Electro-Mechanics is ramping up their investment in China because Samsung has taken into consideration a relationship with the Chinese government.