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3D Printing vs. Semiconductor Parallelization

A perceptive engineer challenges the suggestion that an army of 3D printers may one day replace portions of the semiconductor wafer and chip industry.

A recent article listed 9 ways that 3D printing will change business. Earlier, I had proposed a 10th way - namely, as a replacement for low-volume, low-cost semiconductor fabs.

This blog was picked up by a “3D Printing” law blog written by Paul Banwatt. He focused on my speculations about a future mature technology market where, like today’s consumer PC business, 3D printers will be far cheaper and with much greater resolution and performance than we have now.

“There may well come a time when 3D printers are of such quality and proliferation that they impinge upon commercial manufacturers and abuse patent and IP rights. Could the major semiconductor fabs eventually surrender low-cost, low-production-volume product lines to an army of 3D printers?”

I still maintain that future 3D printing technology could be used for low-volume, low-performance devices. But a seasoned technical professional, Eric Weddington, pointed out that semiconductor wafer manufacturing is a complex process consisting of many parallelized and iterative tasks. That process cannot be easily accomplished by a single manufacturing machine like a 3D printer. What follows is our email “conversation.” — JB


Weddington:  There are three reasons why 3D printing does not affect semiconductor manufacturing:

  1. There are vast differences in scale between what 3D printers do today versus semiconductor manufacturing. 3D printers cannot get down to the nanometer scale.
  2. Semiconductor manufacturing achieves efficiency partially through parallelization of the manufacturing across an entire wafer. In comparison, 3D printing is still very linear, therefore slower and less efficient.
  3. Difference in materials needed to do the manufacturing. There are some pretty harsh chemicals involved in some semi manufacturing.

This is why 3D printers don’t represent any threat to semiconductor manufacturing

Blyler: Good points, but my premise was based on both low-cost, low-production volume lines and stereo-litho: “This idea might not be as crazy as it seems. In a manner similar to the photo-lithography used in today’s IC manufacturing, stereo-lithography – or optical fabrication – is a 3D printing technology based on ultra-violet-curable resins. Both photo- and stereo-lithography use standard patterning techniques to create a multilayered product. …” I agree that 3D printers offer no challenge to today’s semiconductor industry. But the possibility for future challenges seems quite high to me.

Weddington: If you take a look at desktop 3D printers now, and where they have come from, they are not geared for anything like semiconductor manufacturing. The desktop 3D printers now are just an extension of commercial 3D printers, where it’s a linear process (i.e., no parallel manufacturing using masks). The new thing is basically making it low, low cost, and sitting on a desktop. But the basic tool remains the same.

What you’re envisioning, I think (correct me if I’m wrong) is a desktop tool that is like a very low-end version of semi manufacturing tools. But these tools are inherently parallel based in what they do, and you need many different kinds of tools to make the semiconductor-wafer final output. Whereas the 3D printer, the way it works now, is the only tool for the final product.

So while I have no problem with the vision of a low-end semi tool (or suite of them), I don’t see them as really linked to today’s desktop 3D printers. I would also add that I’m not trying to remove how revolutionary a desktop 3D printer is; I think they’re pretty cool and it adds a new dimension to all sorts of things. I just think that semiconductor manufacturing is a different beast and in a class all by itself.

But there are ways to revolutionize that too. ;-)

Blyler: Your comment about “needing many different kinds of tools to make the semiconductor-wafer final output” seems to be the crux of the argument. Point well taken – good discussion!

Figure: The main steps of the semiconductor manufacturing are layering, photolithography, etching, doping, resist removal, and wafer cleaning. (Courtesy of Associate Ku Leuven)

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2 Responses to “3D Printing vs. Semiconductor Parallelization”

  1. Kevin Gomez Says:

    I would argue that current 3D printing technologies could be extended to a wide range of scales – from printing buildings in concrete to printing on the nanometer scale using piezo actuators.
    As far as the mask or parallelization argument goes, have a look at this paper (link in website field above).
    “Desktop nanofabrication with massively multiplexed beam pen lithography”
    DLP based 3D printing is not different from optical lithography as far as parallelization goes, and the methods applied in the referenced paper goes well below the diffraction limit – so smaller scale than current semiconductor optical lithography.

  2. Dale G Maeding Says:

    IC Packaging for prototypes seems like a possibility for right now. Tooling for a ceramic packaging that I am using costs close to $100K for production ready packages. Yet I would just like to have a few prototypes for testing and the price is the same.

    I do see the day that 3D nano-printers will be laying down atoms in ultra small scale devices. But that is out there a ways.

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