Ability to measure nanotechnology components saves chip industry $39 billion

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said today that semiconductor vendor investment in technology that can measure and fine tune nanoscale apparatus and other key semiconductor components will ultimately save the industry $39 billion.

In particular NIST said the initiative to augment nanoscale measurement capabilities as one of the factors that helped manufacturers to increase the possible number of transistors per chip from 3.1 million in 1996 to 1.7 billion in 2006 while making marked improvements in quality, design, software and interoperability.

In a report prepared for NIST by RTI International (RTI), NIST said utilizing measurement tools has and will continue to have a dramatic effect on innovation, productivity, growth and competitiveness in and among high technology sectors, NIST stated. Specifically, RTI said the $12 billion spent on advancing measurement capabilities during the decade beginning in 1996 will have saved that sector more than $51 billion in scrap and rework costs by 2011—a net benefit of approximately $39 billion.

Enabling reuse is a crucial technology because vendors such as IBM estimate that approximately three million silicon wafers worldwide are scrapped each year by the semiconductor industry - representing a significant recycling opportunity.

NIST said in the realm of nanotechnology—from 1 nanometer to 100 nanometers—the old rules of measurement and manufacturing no longer apply. At the level of atoms and molecules, the behavior and properties of materials can be bizarre, totally alien to our everyday, macroscopic surroundings. Unusual as it is, the nanoscopic realm holds tremendous opportunities for real-world technologies and practical applications. It is here that measurement of such amazingly small parts and surfaces is crucial, NIST said.  

According to NIST, measurement and manufacturing are an inseparable. If a firm cannot measure, accurately and reliably, the quality-determining features of products and processes, then it cannot manufacture efficiently.NIST also said some measurement challenges remain. 

There is a need for: new standards to  measure features lengths at 32 nanometers, new techniques for controlling radio-frequency electromagnetic energy and high-frequency magnetic fields, and better chemical and materials standards, as well as new and more accurate calibration, interoperability and test standards.

There are other efforts underway to bolster the silicon industry. Researchers recently developed a chip-debugging program that promises to reduce silicon problem resolution from days to hours while saving potentially millions of dollars. The technology, developed at the University of Michigan, is called FogClear and uses puzzle-solving search algorithms to diagnose problems early on and automatically adjust the blueprint for the chip. Fixing design bugs and wrong wire connections in computer chips after they’ve been fabricated in silicon is a tedious, trial-and-error process that often costs companies millions of dollars and months of time-to-market, the researchers said. 

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