All of these advancements are taking place near the 130um process node which is still used in the manufacture of certain semiconductor chip technologies, e.g, for the IoT. Reaching such a low level of resolution begs the question of whether, sometime soon, an army of 3D printer might be used to product low volume and low-performance IoT integrated chips.
A while back, I debated this question with Eric Weddington, an Open Source Architect at Trimble. He pointed out that semiconductor wafer manufacturing was a complex process consisting of many parallelized and iterative tasks. That process could not be easily accomplished by a single manufacturing machine like a 3D printer. What follows is a portion of our discussion:
Weddington: There are three reasons why 3D printing does not currently affect semiconductor manufacturing:
1. There are vast differences in scale between what 3D printers do today versus semiconductor manufacturing. 3D printers cannot get down to the nanometer scale.
2. Semiconductor manufacturing achieves efficiency partially through parallelization of the manufacturing across an entire wafer. In comparison, 3D printing is still very linear, therefore slower and less efficient.
3. Difference in materials needed to do the manufacturing. There are some pretty harsh chemicals involved in some semi manufacturing. This is why 3D printers don’t represent any threat to semiconductor manufacturing in the near future.
Blyler: Good points, but my premise was based on both low-cost, low-production volume lines and stereo-litho. In a manner similar to the photo-lithography used in today’s IC manufacturing, stereo-lithography – or optical fabrication – is a 3D printing technology based on ultra-violet-curable resins. Both photo- and stereo-lithography use standard patterning techniques to create a multilayered product. I agree that 3D printers still offer little challenge to today’s semiconductor industry. But the possibility for future challenges seems quite high to me.
Weddington: If you take a look at desktop 3D printers now, and where they have come from, they are not geared for anything like semiconductor manufacturing. The desktop 3D printers now are just an extension of commercial 3D printers, where it’s a linear process (i.e., no parallel manufacturing using masks). The new thing is basically making it low, low cost, and sitting on a desktop. But the basic tool remains the same.
What you’re envisioning, I think (correct me if I’m wrong) is a desktop tool that is like a very low-end version of semi manufacturing tools. But these tools are inherently parallel based in what they do, and you need many different kinds of tools to make the semiconductor-wafer final output. Whereas the 3D printer, the way it works now, is the only tool for the final product.
So while I have no problem with the vision of a low-end semi tool (or suite of them), I don’t see them as really linked to today’s desktop 3D printers. I would also add that I’m not trying to remove how revolutionary a desktop 3D printer is; I think they’re pretty cool and it adds a new dimension to all sorts of things. I just think that semiconductor manufacturing is a different beast and in a class all by itself.
But there are ways to revolutionize that too.
Blyler: Your comment about “needing many different kinds of tools to make the semiconductor-wafer final output” seems to be the crux of the argument. The main steps of the semiconductor manufacturing are layering, photolithography, etching, doping, resist removal, and wafer cleaning. So that’s a point well taken!