Accelerating Innovation With An E-Beam Lithography System

Maskless lithography facilitates faster yield ramp and more efficient cycles of learning.


By Al Blais and Johnny Yeap

Traditional lithography remains a standard in the industry, providing precision and a relatively cost-effective way to create patterns on the wafer when producing very high volumes of chips. However, cycle times can be long depending on the complexity of the masks that must be made.

The emergence of maskless e-beam lithography is providing a complementary path toward helping chipmakers get to market faster. Maskless e-beam lithography starts the direct-write process on wafers as soon as a technician feeds a design layout file to the machine. Using electron beams to produce patterns on silicon wafers, e-beam lithography enables faster yield ramp since there is no need to wait for a mask to be manufactured. Additionally, more efficient cycles of learning are realized given the ability to pattern design iterations across a single wafer.

A key innovator in this space is Multibeam Corporation, based in Santa Clara, California. Founded by Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Famer Dr. David K. Lam, Multibeam has developed the first high-resolution and high-productivity e-beam with direct write capability for fab production. Multibeam’s Multicolumn Electron Beam Lithography (MEBL) Systems are integrated with Synopsys CATS data preparation software, creating an easier and faster path from chip design to production.

“Multibeam and Synopsys have similar visions of where the industry is going, and together we can accelerate the cycles of innovation,” said Lam, chairman & CEO of Multibeam. “Our Lithography Systems featuring Synopsys software will support chip designers and manufacturers in their quest to produce higher performance chips at a faster pace to meet the demands of today’s compute-intensive applications.”

Enabling advanced integration of chips

Based on multiple miniature e-beam columns, Multibeam’s maskless e-beam system facilitates possibilities that haven’t been available in semiconductor manufacturing. By enabling rapid cycles of learning, the system allows:

  • Chip designers to explore new ideas by conducting wafer-scale experiments where they can customize every chip on the wafer
  • Design changes to be implemented immediately, without having to produce and wait for new masks
  • Rapid iterations between design feedback and validation
  • Fast ramp to production once the design has been validated

The MEBL system also helps accelerate system-level optimization through advanced integration of chips. By enabling chip designers to utilize next-generation interposers, they will be able to pack more chips into each package, while achieving higher chip-to-chip bandwidth and lower energy per bit transfer – all crucial for producing AI chips.

Synopsys CATS software is a key component that enables advanced integration. Multibeam’s integration of CATS software highlights its versatility for maskless, as well as mask-based, chip production flows, allowing for seamless integration. The scalable CATS software suite transcribes complex chip design data into machine-readable instructions for e-beam, laser, and multi-beam mask writer machines. The software suite provides data prep modules for data fracture, data verification, mask rule checking, mask error correction, job deck processing, layer operations, and data sizing. It also integrates into Synopsys Proteus full-chip mask synthesis manufacturing solutions for correction, which enhances resolution for better yield and supports large-volume, high-throughput data transfer.

“One of Synopsys’ goals is to make it much easier and quicker for chip designers to bring their products to market with fewer mistakes and fewer cycles, and that’s one of the key benefits of our technology as well,” said Ken MacWilliams, president of Multibeam. “In addition, Synopsys brought e-beam expertise that complemented ours, as well as a mindset geared toward building a system that would work well in a production environment.”

First system ships this spring

“We are excited about our collaboration with Multibeam, as we look for new opportunities to drive advances in lithography for our customers. With a complete set of tools in our portfolio that are used in all stages of tapeout operations, such as Proteus, CATS, SmartMRC and S-Litho, we are able to add unique value to our partners such as Multibeam and elevate the capabilities of the hardware tools that they create,” said Kostas Adam, vice president of mask solutions engineering at Synopsys.

Multibeam is shipping its first MEBL system this spring. With faster cycle times and yield ramp, along with the ability to fix problems earlier, chipmakers can rapidly explore new design variations to help them differentiate their products.

Johnny Yeap is director of application engineering at Synopsys.

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