Where is China’s semiconductor equipment going in the face of Korean patent accusations?

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On the evening of May 20, Biden, who had just got off the plane, went straight to a Samsung electronics semiconductor factory near Seoul. Accompanied by President Yoon sik Yueh of the Republic of Korea and Vice President Lee Jae Yong of Samsung Electronics, he inspected and visited the park.

South Koreans, who are proud of semiconductors, are not very concerned this time: neither the presidents of the two countries nor the president of Samsung are equipped with dust-proof clothes in the chip production line that requires dust-free. In contrast, the engineers who guided the visitors were well equipped. This can not help but make people suspect that the two sides’ attention to the “technology alliance” is only on paper.

After Biden left, the “cleanliness Mania” of Korean semiconductor returned: according to the Korean business daily, on May 25, the Suwon district attorney’s office of South Korea announced that seven people, including semes employees of Samsung’s semiconductor equipment manufacturer, had been transferred to the court due to technology leaks. The hat of “technology outflow” has been put on the head of the Chinese people.

Facing the aggression of the ROK, Chinese enterprises obviously have their own rhythm.

Wen Qingning

This article is reproduced from the wechat official account “guanchacaijing” (id:guanchacaijing). The original article was first published on June 8, 2022, with the title “where is China’s semiconductor equipment in the face of Korean patent allegations?”.


The accusation that a donkey’s lips are not a horse’s mouth

According to the ROK, the Chinese have taken a fancy to the advanced semiconductor cleaning technology.

According to the staff of Suwon procuratorial office, the seven people involved in commercial disclosure stole the manufacturing technology of supercritical cleaning equipment developed by semes, a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics, from March 2018 to the end of 2021. With the help of two former semes technicians, they built 14 semiconductor cleaning machines and made a profit of 71billion won (376.3 million yuan) in China.

Semes mentioned here, founded in 1993, is the largest pretreatment semiconductor equipment manufacturer in Korea. Semes covers all chip manufacturing processes such as cleaning, etching, photography, testing and packaging. Since Samsung controls more than 90% of semes, the company has become a semiconductor equipment manufacturer supported by Samsung. The etching equipment produced by semes has also been used in Samsung’s kaiv-nand flash memory plant.


The core of the technology theft case is a former employee of semes. He worked as a researcher in the company for more than 10 years, so he welcomed the investment of Chinese enterprises. After leaving semes, he did not return the technical data to the company. Instead, he obtained key information such as technical indicators, design drawings, drug channels and software programs from the partners and sold the self-made semiconductor cleaning equipment to Chinese enterprises.

From this point of view, the technical disclosure of semes is more like the confused accounts of the former employees. However, the South Korean media are happy to look for clues that “China benefits” in complex cases. In a report on May 26, Korean KBS television said that the stakeholders of a include “China’s state-owned Semiconductor Research Institute” ICRD, namely Shanghai integrated circuit R & D Center Co., Ltd.

However, from the perspective of main business, ICRD has little to do with cleaning machines. From the introduction of the enterprise, ICRD mainly provides early-stage R & D, technical verification and process supporting work, and does not involve equipment manufacturing. The applied equipment technology is CMOS image sensor, high-voltage power device and intelligent vision, which also does not involve equipment manufacturing. The relationship between ICRD and secret stealing organizations may only stop at equipment procurement.

What is surprising is that this evil fire actually burned other Chinese enterprises. On June 1, in response to the “semes disclosure case”, the domestic semiconductor cleaning equipment manufacturer shengmei Shanghai responded that shengmei Shanghai and its holding subsidiaries had nothing to do with the incident.

In order to clarify the rumors, shengmei also specially emphasized its business. “The SAPS megasonic single chip cleaning technology initiated by shengmei in the industry won the first prize of Shanghai Science Progress Award in 2020.” The semiconductor equipment involved in semes is a supercritical carbon dioxide cleaning technology. Their technical routes are completely different, and shengmei Shanghai naturally has nothing to do with it.


A stepping stone to the semiconductor equipment industry

If we jump out of the “secret stealing scandal”, we can only observe from the field of semiconductor cleaning equipment. Shengmei semiconductor is penetrating into the core market of the semiconductor field.

Theoretically, semiconductor manufacturing equipment can be divided into lithography machine, process detection, film deposition, ion implantation, cleaning, oxidation annealing and other equipment according to the technical process. Among them, the value of cleaning equipment only accounts for about 5%, and the technical barrier is low. However, because chip manufacturing requires efficient cleaning processes, this field has always been a stepping stone for the semiconductor equipment industry. In addition to shengmei, northern Huachuang, Zhichun technology and other enterprises have participated.


The entry of shengmei semiconductor into the cleaning equipment industry is also inseparable from the historical opportunity of the industry: in 2005, the global semiconductor production line was transferred to China, and the demand for semiconductor equipment increased. ACMR, which is still overseas, was introduced into Shanghai as a key enterprise in the name of “shengmei semiconductor”.

After 3 years of research and development, shengmei developed saps (space alternating phase-shifting megasonic cleaning) technology. This set of equipment manufactured with new technology soon attracted the attention of storage giant Hynix. In 2009, Hynix introduced the cleaning equipment of shengmei and started the product validation for two years. The revenue generated by no orders for two consecutive years has also brought great pressure to shengmei.

The good news is that after two years of testing, shengmei semiconductor’s equipment helped Hynix improve the yield by 1.5%, and welcomed customers’re purchase in 2013. Based on the order of memory chips, shengmei semiconductor has won the product orders of Changjiang storage SMIC international and Huahong group. These companies, as major customers, constitute more than 80% of the orders of shengmei.

With the growth of China’s semiconductor production capacity, domestic enterprises began to gradually grab back the voice in external fields such as cleaning equipment. In 2019, shengmei semiconductor accounted for 20.5% of the bidding procurement share of China’s semiconductor cleaning equipment, which has been in line with foreign giant Fanlin semiconductor. In terms of gross profit margin, the gross profit margin of its single-chip cleaning equipment is about 45%, which can also ensure the survival of the enterprise.

However, in the long run, there are many domestic semiconductor cleaning equipment enterprises. In order to alleviate the possible competitive pressure, shengmei is developing wet etching equipment, stress-free polishing equipment and other fields. North China Huachuang and Xinyuan micro, which also participate in the competition for cleaning equipment, have also joined the fields of etching equipment and gelatinization development equipment.


Semiconductor devices don’t just “wash the dishes”

For Chinese semiconductor enterprises, it is very profitable to seize the “dish washing” market such as cleaning equipment, but it is not enough.

For this, deans, a Japanese cleaning equipment giant, has deep feelings. As the developer of the world’s first rotary wafer cleaning system, deans accounted for 53% of the semiconductor cleaning equipment market in 2016. However, with the entry of Chinese enterprises, this figure has dropped to 45%. Shengmei Shanghai and North China Huachuang and other enterprises will face the same pressure in the future.


From the perspective of market transformation, deans once considered the business of etching equipment, but these businesses did not improve the revenue structure for the company. According to the H1 financial report of Deans in 2022, 95% of the company’s total revenue comes from cleaning equipment, of which the single product cleaning machine accounts for as much as 70%, and it is heavily dependent on the su-3200 product.

Compared with deans, domestic semiconductor equipment manufacturers also face serious Matthew effect. But at present, except for the lithography machine, other process equipment are accelerating the penetration.

In terms of degumming equipment, etang semiconductor has won more than 30% of the global market share by relying on dry degumming equipment. In the field of heat treatment equipment, Yitang also ranked among the top 10 in the world in 2020 with a market share of 0.1%. In the CMP field, CETC 45 Institute and Huahai Qingke have both won domestic orders, and subsequent replacement is gradually put on the agenda.

Up to now, the subdivisions of domestic semiconductor equipment research include ion implantation equipment, etching equipment and film deposition equipment. In the field of gluing and developing equipment, Xinyuan micro is also trying to replace it on a small scale. Considering the pressure in these fields, enterprises including Yitang and Xinyuan micro are diversifying their businesses through low threshold areas such as cleaning and CMP, and using the revenue of advantageous projects to promote the technical breakthrough in key areas.

Facing the future, the alternative target of domestic equipment may be second-hand chip equipment. A special report in the Wall Street Journal at the end of last year pointed out that in order to meet the original production cycle, the price of second-hand equipment has gone up, which has exceeded the original value. The canon fpa3000i4, which was only produced in 1995, was quoted at only US $100000 in 2014 and US $1.7 million in 2021.

According to the traditional industry law, mature process chip manufacturers will choose second-hand equipment in order to combat cost pressure. Bruce Kim, CEO of second-hand semiconductor equipment manufacturer surplus global, once stated that the company has recycled 40000 sets of equipment in the past 20 years. However, as the demand for second-hand equipment continues to rise, the delivery of these equipment may also have problems. Compared with new equipment and second-hand equipment, domestic equipment will have more obvious advantages in delivery.

It is difficult to go deep into the core, but China semiconductor has never stopped.

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