With the semiconductor industry's plans to transition to 450mm wafers on deep freeze, chipmakers are doubling down on 300mm fabs.

According to market research firm IC Insights, 300mm wafers represented about 64 percent of worldwide fab capacity at the end of last year. The firm expects that percentage to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8 percent between 2016 to 2021, rising to more than 71 percent.

There was a time when the industry was pushing for 450mm fabs to be in place by now, although many observers were skeptical. In recent years, momentum around 450mm has all but fizzled. The Global 450 Consortium (G450C) — a joint R&D program that involved Intel, TSMC, Globalfoundries, IBM, Samsung and the SUNY Polytechnic Institute — quietly finished the first phase of its work at the end of last year, with no date selected for beginning the next phase.

G. Dan Hutcheson, a veteran semiconductor equipment analyst who is chairman and CEO of VLSI Research, told EE Times in January that 450mm is "probably dead for another five to 10 years."

Even five to 10 years may be optimistic. "I don't see 450mm on the horizon," said Christian Dieseldorff, director of industry research and analysis at the SEMI trade association, in an email exchange this week.

Christian Dieseldorff
Christian Dieseldorff

Dieseldorff, who like many in the industry experienced the transition from 200mm to 300mm first hand, said the problem is the initial cost of 450mm and disagreement about whether the chipmakers or the equipment suppliers should bear that substantial burden.

"It's the same issue as with 300mm," Dieseldorff said. "Everyone 'rushes' not to be the first."

Meanwhile, the industry keeps getting more mileage out of 300mm. IC Insights forecasts that the number of 300mm fabs in the world will rise from 98 to 123 by 2021.

SEMI, meanwhile, is tracking about 45 300mm fabs that it expects to come online between 2016 and 2021, not including R&D or pilot fabs.

And, according to IC Insights, there's plenty of life left in 200mm, too, as 300mm doesn't make economic sense for many types of devices, including specialty memories, display drivers, microcontrollers and RF and analog products. "Fabs running 200mm wafers will continue to be profitable for many more years for the fabrication of numerous types of ICs," the firm said in a statement released last week.

IC Insights pointed out that 200mm fabs are also still being used for building MEMS-based "non-IC" products such as accelerometers, pressure sensors and actuators, including acoustic-wave RF filtering devices and micro-mirror chips for digital projectors and displays, as well as power discrete semiconductors and some high-brightness LEDs.

— Dylan McGrath is editor in chief of EE Times.

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