Europe's chips stack up

A consortium of French, German and Austrian partners are ensuring Europe’s semiconductor industry goes from strength to strength and won the 2018 EUREKA Innovation Award in the "Successful SME – large corporation collaboration" category.

Sometimes described as the computer chip that changed the world, the “integrated circuit” (or IC) is 60 years old this September. It is present in the everyday possessions we now take for granted in the information technology age, powering our mobile phones, tablets, new driverless cars. ICs integrate electronic functions on a surface of silicon (2D).

The French, German and Austrian companies and research institutes are ensuring Europe will play a leading role in the future of integrated circuits manufacturing by integrating functions this time in volume: this is called 3D integration. Three-dimensional ICs are manufactured by stacking ICs on top of each other, thus achieving tighter functional integration. However, this manufacturing approach requires new processes.

‘This is the hot topic in the industry’ – Brigitte Descouts, project leader

MASTER_3D, a project managed by the EUREKA CATRENE programme, focused on three-dimensional ICs and their manufacturing value chain, with the technological breakthroughs now delivering new manufacturing equipment, tools and processes onto the market.

This is the hot topic in the industry,” said Brigitte Descouts, Partnership Programs Manager at the French firm STMicroelectronics. ST is one of the four leading European semiconductor manufacturers, nine equipment suppliers and four top research centres that joined the project to research the latest 3D integration processes – the ways to interconnect the stacked silicon wafers vertically so that they behave as a single device and perform better than two-dimensional processes at reduced power.

 “We were all interested in combining our strengths,” agreed Klaus Pressel, Senior Manager of Funding at German semi-conductor manufacturer Infineon.  “We couldn’t have achieved as individual organisations what we did as a consortium. There were too many challenges to solve”.

It was a fantastic example of research and development collaboration,” said Klaus Pressel. “The SMEs, for instance, really benefitted by gaining access to the latest requirements in this field.” Most of the tool suppliers involved are now selling products based on the processes investigated on the project.

France’s Fogale, for instance, commercialised a new 3D tool now being used by the industry’s top two contract manufacturers (foundries) and major semiconductor manufacturers. EVG developed a new generation metrology (measuring) system, which has been bought by semiconductor companies in Asia and the US as well as Europe. Sentronics, a medium-sized German company, launched the SemDex tool, the most flexible fully automated metrology system for 3D integrated circuits.

AXO has started a new line of business in X-ray microscopy and improve their high-end X-ray optics systems, cutting-edge areas of X-ray analysis. PVA TePla, in cooperation with FhG IWMS and IMS, developed a world-leading automated high throughput Scanning Acoustic Microscope, a tool for investigating, measuring and imaging objects.

The chipmaker partners went on to test those new processes in prototypes, with testing and characterization undertaken by STMicroelectronics, ams AG, NXP and Infineon.

MASTER_3D is a CATRENE project, part of the EUREKA cluster for micro- and nano-electronics, which ran from 2008 to the end of 2015. The CATRENE programme focuses on delivering solutions that would respond to Europe’s social needs, while strengthening economic prosperity and Europe’s ability to compete at global level.

Today, AENEAS manages on-going projects from the CATRENE cluster as well as the PENTA programme, the current EUREKA cluster for micro- and nano-electronics enabled systems and applications.​

Raising the productivity and competitiveness of European businesses through technology. Boosting national economies on the international market, and strengthening the basis for sustainable prosperity and employment.