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NXQ article in Chip Design Magazine – Make the Jump to Next-Generations Contact Aligners

Whoever said, “You can’t get there from here,” was wrong. With the introduction of a new generation of modern contact proximity mask aligners, manufacturers seeking greater production flexibility to meet expanding market needs can now migrate their operations while staying within budget. By staying with still-valid, but greatly updated, contact and proximity photolithography technology, a wide variety of fabricators can enjoy larger production-quantity runs, greater choice in wafer size and shape, and improved flexibility in manufacturing processes, while still containing production expenses within the same cost-effective level that contact and proximity lithography provides.

The Roadmap to Growth
Once reserved solely for building integrated circuits, contact mask aligners are being updated to fabricate products in diverse industries such as biotechnology, consumer electronics, aerospace, communications, and transportation. Canon PLA and MPA series machines survive as extremely capable production machines—so much so that they still represent a very capable starting point in this migration to new markets. In the hands of competent remanufacturers, these machines are even enjoying a “second wind” of utility.

Despite this expanded utility, Canon mask aligners eventually run into the limitations imposed by older design and lack of OEM factory support. For this reason, some industries are turning to a new generation of contact aligners produced by established, smaller OEMs that redesign and expand the technology to meet the increased requirements of today’s new-market opportunities.

Deciding on when to modernize hinges on a number of considerations—general obsolescence, spares and service support, ergonomics, future application requirements—any one of which can act as a catalyst for embarking on a new growth plan for a manufacturer who wants to expand without making a Grand Canyon-sized leap to expensive and restrictive stepper technology.

Size, Shape, Type
New-generation contact mask aligners handle new sizes of substrates, ranging from pieces up to eight inches in diameter, which can help reduce production expenses when cost-cutting is necessary. These newer machines can also be adapted to handle different substrate shapes, such as squares and rectangles, which were never even imagined at the time when contact mask aligner technology was originated 25-plus years ago.

Particularly in R&D applications, the need to go beyond traditional quartz or glass plate photo masks has accelerated. When one-off prototyping is a top priority, newer mask aligners make excellent economic sense because they can handle thin film mylar masks—patterns can be generated and printed onto a mylar mask using nothing more than a high-quality laser printer.

Volume, Flexibility, Specificity
When a company moves beyond the R&D and prototyping stage into manufacturing large production quantities, moving up to a high-capacity contact mask aligner makes perfect sense. Here, the new-generation machines excel by offering features such as simple topside mask loading, robotic autoload handling, and auto-alignment.

Some tools offer the best of both worlds, initially featuring manual-tray loading, with the ability to simply add a module to switch over to high-capacity loading processes when need dictates. Because of the open architecture now employed within some new-generation contact mask aligners, manufacturers now have a wide variety of choices in customizing an aligner when unique fabricating requirements materialize.

Finances
Far from the least of considerations, economic realities often dictate when new production equipment gets purchased. In such instances, contact mask aligner technology promises the best benefit-to-cost ratio. New-generation contact aligners can reproduce traces as small as 2 microns at a fraction of the price of expensive stepper technology. In addition, the latest contact aligners give away little, if anything, in terms of flexibility to any other tools.

Some OEM manufacturers reduce costs even further by offering machines devoid of unnecessary features that a particular manufacture may not need. Again, an open architecture and modular-based system makes the cost-above-all-else path possible.

Just as important—precisely because contact proximity alignment technology has existed for so long—the latest generation of tools benefits from years of refinement to the point that they are extremely reliable and robust while still offering low overhead costs. As ongoing support contracts become less of a necessity, users can lower the cost of ownership even further.

Destination: Success

With the tremendous improvements incorporated into the latest generation of contact mask aligners over their predecessors, the technology will continue its useful life span well into the future. Manufacturers who opt to take advantage of this technology stand to leverage their investment through a significantly lowered cost of ownership, yet greatly increased production flexibility.

When someone says you can’t get there from here, simply respond: “Oh yes I can!” It’s no longer a matter of if, but rather when is the time to make the jump to new contact aligner technology.

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