IBM takes a gamble on future, invests in promising technology

September 23, 1991|By Valerie Rice | Valerie Rice,Knight-Ridder News Service

EAST FISHKILL, N.Y. -- In a pastoral scene a scant 100 yards from an aging red barn and a field of grazing cows, IBM is taking a big gamble on the future.

At its Advanced Semiconductor Technology Center, the computer giant is trying to ensure that it will continue to be a leader in semiconductor technology throughout the decade by investing millions of dollars on a number of promising but virtually untried manufacturing processes.

The plant was finished last year in rural East Fishkill, where International Business Machines Corp. already has three other semiconductor operations, and it runs 24 hours a day.

RF Two-thirds of the center, which cost almost $750 million, is devot

ed to chip manufacturing research in all areas. The remainder is its Advanced Lithography Facility, where IBM engineers experiment with a variety of techniques to pack more circuits onto a thumbnail-size chip.

The lithography equipment is housed in a section of the building supported by extra columns -- to reduce vibrations -- and 5-feet-thick concrete walls.

Lithography is the process of inscribing a pattern of lines, or circuits, on a chip. As more and more features are packed onto a single chip, engineers must find a way to make the lines closer together and still make it work correctly.

Although existing lithography systems can sketch out circuits that are about 0.8 micron apart (a micron is half the width of a human hair), new techniques are needed to bring the sizes down to 0.3 micron or even less.

To achieve that, IBM has assembled a number of experimental lithography systems. None is a sure thing, and in fact it will be years before the company knows which one or ones will work. But this way the company is covering all its bets, says Jack Kuehler, IBM's president.

The most expensive and largest part of IBM's lithography effort is dedicated to work on X-ray lithography. Although X-ray is heavily researched in Japan, it is very difficult to use to draw lines on a chip because the X-ray particles are hard to control.

The other problem is generating the specialized X-rays themselves, which IBM has solved by putting in a synchrotron ring. Only the second one in use in the United States, a synchrotron ring uses a linear accelerator to speed up electrons, which then shoot into the ring. As they are forced to go around in a circle, they bounce around, creating the X-rays.

Although some analysts are skeptical about the future of X-ray technology and the practicality of using the large and expensive synchrotron ring, Mr. Kuehler says IBM had no choice but to make this and the other investments in lithography.

"There are a dozen of those rings or more" in Asia, he says. "We have to invest to stay in the game."

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