Japan’s SMEs Continue To Be At The Core Of Semiconductor Production Toward The Age Of 5G

The ongoing application of 5G as the standard network for communication devices will have a greater impact than just being able to upload photos to social media faster. The improved connections and communication that 5G brings can help control your car and your electrical appliances, monitor the environment and even help perform medical surgery remotely. As we witness 5G needs semiconductors that respond to the higher communication speed and frequency, it may be worth noting that crucial parts of the semiconductor manufacturing process continue to be originated with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Japan.

Chemical Purity behind High-level Semiconductor

Small is beautiful in today’s 5G world and the circuits of a semiconductor are measured in nanometers, or millionths of a millimeter. “In the semiconductor manufacturing process, you’re looking at patterns with widths of around 10 nanometers,” says Ohashi Hideo, the General Manager of the Public Relations Division of Tokyo Ohka Kogyo, which is the world leader in the area of photoresists, a crucial chemical substance in forming semiconductor circuits. “Imagine slicing a human hair 10,000 times vertically and you will understand the level of precision that our photoresists are able to produce,” Ohashi says.

A photoresist is a liquid layer that coats the wafer used in photolithography, the “photographic” process that creates the semiconductor circuits. Intense light is projected through a photomask, which contains the circuit diagrams for the semiconductor, and this causes a reaction in the photoresist that mirrors those diagrams. The exposed parts and the photoresist are removed, leaving the circuit diagram on the silicon wafer. All these steps must be carried out with incredible precision and absolutely pure materials. The slightest contamination could render the semiconductors useless. “We’re talking about the purity levels of parts per trillion,” Ohashi explains. “A photoresist contains resin, a solvent and photo acid generators (PAG) that react to light, and the photoresists we make do not tolerate impurities. It’s not something that can be replicated by other companies, and we are ready for further micronizing trend of the diagram into the 5G age by this purity.”

Beaming on the 5G Future

NuFlare Technology Managing Director Yamada Hirokazu has a simple explanation of his company’s contribution to the semiconductor manufacturing process: “Think of it as printing a photo on paper,” he says. NuFlare specializes in making photomask manufacturing machines for the photolithography process. Over the years, as the circuit designs on photomasks have become smaller and more complex, and the intensity of the light such as electron beam has needed to be stronger without becoming blurry to define the pattern in the same way that a knife needs to be sharper to cut precisely.

“Since the 1990s, every time miniaturization occurs, the electron beam has had to be intensified to achieve greater precision,” Yamada explains. “It was 10 kV and we brought it up to 50 kV. The machine shoots light 30 million times per second and the accuracy must be within one or two nanometers, and the electron beam to draw the most advanced mask is so precise that its positioning is equivalent to hitting a 1.6 mm target on Mt. Fuji from Tokyo Tower which is more than 100 kilometers away. We believe we are the only company at this high level of technology for the 5G generation of semiconductors.”

The company’s CEO Sugimoto Shigeki points out that this new technology will be applied to AI, IoT and data centers that will require greater memory and processing speeds, which in turn necessitate higher specifications of semiconductors and extremely high-speed mask-writing technology. “We’re talking about 5G with a very high frequency and power semiconductors,” he says. “So, we also produce a gallium nitride epitaxial growth system that enables the manufacturing of these power semiconductors, which has a faster response time than silicon and reduces power loss, and which we believe no other company has stepped into this technology field yet.”

The speed of progress in the semiconductor field is unrelenting, particularly in the age of 5G, so NuFlare allocates an impressive 20% of its sales for R&D, part of which is looking into deep learning technology as a means of investigating the causes of errors in the terabytes of the circuit pattern data to respond to the 5G level of precision.

Molding the Best Solution for the 5G Progress

While many technologies quickly become obsolete, some stay invincible. Towa Corporation specializes in molding – the process that seals the chips by insulating them with resin – and the company has revolutionized the molding process three times. Compression molding, its current key technology, has remained unrivaled for over a decade. It involves melting the resin for dipping wire and chips and using 100% of the resin, making the sealing process for advanced semiconductors easier, faster and cheaper. Previously, resin ran through the substrate, but this resulted in around 70% of the resin being wasted. Now with the innovative compression molding, resin waste is zero since the entire molten resin can be solidified in the metal mold, and the precision of the machine means it can handle the thinner, larger and more complex chip-loaded substrates to produce semiconductor output. “Our technology is perfect for the 5G age with the increasing demands for molding larger substrates as we can dispense the resin over a large area without hurting the substrate components,” says Towa President and CEO Okada Hirokazu. “In the 11 years since we unveiled our first compression model, no other company has been able to replicate this technology. Intellectual property is one thing, but it is simply because of the level of technology that we have achieved.”

As a result, Towa has a 56.6% share of the global market for molding equipment, and the company is leveraging its expertise to look beyond semiconductors, such as developing an in-vehicle heads-up monitoring display system and an aerial imaging technology which enables, for example, touch-free midair button. And it is also undertaking to manufacture a spray-on instrument which sprays adhesion barrier material on organs during abdominal surgery.

As the world heads into the 5G age, Tokyo Ohka’s Ohashi believes Japanese companies have a unique strength, one that helped his company become the biggest photoresist supplier in the world. “From the very start, we communicated very closely with our customers and, as a result, the photoresists we came up with were very different from any other product that existed at the time,” he says. “We have to be able to deal with customer requests very quickly. I think only Japanese companies do that and that’s what makes them so strong. When it comes to semiconductors, you must aim for perfection, and this is what Japanese companies do.”

Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.

To learn more about TOKYO OHKA KOGYO CO., LTD., click here.

To learn more about NuFlare Technology, Inc. (NFT), click here.

To learn more about TOWA CORPORATION, click here.

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