American authorities’ lack of concern about the ability of Chinese companies to source lithography equipment from Japan has long been based on the assumption that local manufacturers provide solutions primarily for sophisticated lithography. Canon has shattered that myth this week by starting to ship equipment capable of producing chips in the 5nm format, but using a different operating principle than the machines made by industry leader ASML.
At least as explained BloombergCanon’s new generation devices allow patterns to be applied to silicon wafers with a minimum size of 14 mm2, which makes it possible to obtain chips with characteristics equivalent to 5 nm analogues from the world’s leading manufacturers, manufactured using the so-called EUV lithography. Through consistent improvements and further developments of these systems, Canon even expects to create the conditions for the production of 2nm products on these machines. At the same time, the method used by Canon to process silicon wafers is more similar to printing than to actual photolithography, since the principle of image projection is not used at all to transfer the microscopic structures of integrated circuits onto a silicon wafer.
That the technology is relatively new in this context compounds problems for the U.S. government, which wants to ban the supply of any equipment to China that allows local companies to make advanced chips. Certain agreements have already been reached between the US and Japanese authorities in the field of lithography, but the new type of Canon devices does not fall under them. Company officials have not yet commented on whether Japanese export control regulations will govern the ability to ship such equipment to China.
Nanoprinted lithography has long been considered a lower-cost alternative to optical lithography, and memory chip makers such as SK hynix and Kioxia have experimented with its use in the past. The latter even tested Canon’s nanoprint lithography equipment before it was ready for mass production. At this point, potential customers were filing complaints about the equipment, particularly regarding the high level of product defects.
Competitor ASML from the Netherlands is currently the world’s leading manufacturer of lithography systems that enable the production of chips with technology standards of 5 nm and below. This year it expects a 30% increase in sales and will be able to fulfill all orders for its equipment at least next year. Back in 2014, Canon acquired the developer of nanoprinting lithography systems Molecular Imprints and has since been making serious efforts to develop corresponding technologies. Canon’s first new lithography facility north of Tokyo in a long time will be operational in 2025. Canon also supplies its products to the needs of Taiwan’s TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker.