Thermal processes are vital to the making of an integrated circuit. By heating the silicon wafer chipmaker can drive chemical reactions tomodify crystal structures, diffuse trace elements and grow toughinsulating films – making devices faster, tougher and more reliable.
Up until the late nineties, these processes were usually performed on many wafers at a time in a special oven, called a furnace. Howevertransistors had shrunk to the point where they would break down underthe repeated long exposures to high temperatures that are unavoidableusing furnaces.
The solution was to heat each wafer individually. Using powerful halogenlamps, this allowed the entire process to be completed in less than 30seconds (hence the term rapid thermal processing). Applied’s RTPtechnology was quickly adopted across the chipmaking industry andallowed our customers to reach new heights of processor speed whilegreatly reducing the power consumption – critical at a time when we were demanding longer battery life from laptops and the new “personaldigital assistants.”
By 2002, the flash memory revolution was in full swing and memory makers were struggling toincrease manufacturing capacity to meet exploding demand. Anticipatingthis, Applied had been working on a new RTP machine which would givememory makers the RTP performance they were accustomed to in a(relatively) tiny footprint that could be installed and start crankingout chips quickly.
In September of that year, the Vantage waslaunched. Most chipmaking systems are, by necessity, huge. They’reshipped in several discrete modules and assembled on-site. The Vantagewas different: small enough to ship in a single crate and quick to setup: some customers had it unboxed and working in barely more than aweek. To make installation even easier, a smartphone-style dockingstation is shipped ahead of time. The customer connects up power, waterand gases to the dock so that when the system itself arrives, it justsnaps into place.
The Vantage was a hit. Within two years, it was the RTP machine of choicefor every leading chipmaker. It still holds that position today, 500systems later.
The technology hasn’t stood still, either. Our latest Vantage Astra™ system uses high-power lasers to heat the top few layers of atoms ofthe chip to over 1,000°C in less than a millisecond, a heating rate ofan astonishing one million Celsius per second. This technology protectsdelicate circuit features, enabling chipmakers to create transistors and memory cells just a few tens of nanometers across and squeeze a billion transistors into a microprocessor.