Lasertec gets first next-gen gear orders from memory makers

Lasertec has managed to reduce lead times for some machines from one year to as little as 3 months. PHOTO: LASERTEC

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Lasertec, the sole supplier of machines required to test designs for the world's most advanced chips, has expanded its list of customers to computer memory makers, President Osamu Okabayashi said in an interview.

First orders from dynamic random-access memory (Dram) manufacturers for testing gear used in the extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) method of chipmaking came in the fiscal year ended June, Mr Okabayashi said, declining to name specific customers or disclose exact numbers. The demand helped push Lasertec's bookings to a record 112.9 billion yen (S$1.35 billion) in the period, a number the company forecasts will climb another 42 per cent this year.

The EUV process unlocks today's smallest-scale designs, enabling more powerful and efficient microprocessors, referred to as logic chips in the industry. Yokohama-based Lasertec spent years developing equipment for it and has seen its share price rocket up more than 1,000 per cent since early 2019 as EUV adoption by manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing took off.

It now forecasts a sixth straight year of record revenue and profit thanks to demand for advanced manufacturing from the likes of Apple Inc., whose latest iPhones and iPads are powered by EUV designs.

Dram is a type of computer memory used to perform operations that doesn't hold data after the power is switched off. Until recently, EUV had been used only in the more complex and lucrative logic chips, but now Samsung's memory-making division along with SK Hynix and Micron Technology - the trio dominating the market - have all announced and started to adopt EUV for their most advanced products.

"Logic foundries have led the way on EUV, while Dram makers are just beginning their mass production using the technology in 2021," Mr Okabayashi said. "It's just the start."

In 2017, Lasertec solved a key piece of the EUV puzzle when it created a machine that can inspect blank EUV design masks for internal flaws. Though just one step of the manufacturing process, this verification is indispensable and owning the technology has put Lasertec in an enviable position.

In September 2019, the company cleared another milestone with equipment that can do the same for stencils with chip designs already printed on them. Chipmakers buy these to minimize mask flaws and thus improve production yields and profitability.

Logic foundries are likely to remain the company's biggest customers because of how the chips are made, Mr Okabayashi said. Dram manufacturing requires just a handful of masks, because the integrated circuit layout is simpler and there are only a few types of the final product, he said.

Logic chips are vastly more diverse, with companies like Apple and Alphabet's Google increasingly building bespoke chips for their consumer hardware. Production at 5nm uses more than 10 masks and the next-generation 3nm semiconductors require more than 20.

Lasertec has struggled to keep up with demand. Order backlog ballooned to a record 135.8 billion yen last fiscal year and is expected to grow 57 per cent in the current period.

The company has managed to reduce lead times for some machines from one year to as little as 3 months by stocking up on parts ahead of the actual orders. It hired 88 new employees and plans to add 170 this year, more than half of them overseas, to help with development, installation and support. It also boosted its research budget 31 per cent to 7.5 billion yen.

"With mask-testing equipment, there is always a push to detect ever smaller flaws," Mr Okabayashi said. "Something that wasn't a problem at 5-nanometer scale, will cause yields to drop at 3 nanometers and so on."

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