Canon's alternative chip equipment likely subject to US trade curbs to China

Canon's alternative chip equipment likely subject to US trade curbs to China

A month after Canon announced it would be manufacturing nano-imprinting lithography machines, the company’s CEO said its offering would be more affordable than the technology currently available but still subject to US trade restrictions to China.

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Canon has said it will be offering nano-imprinting lithography (NIL) at a lower price than ASML chip-making technology, potentially allowing smaller manufacturers to make leading-edge semiconductors, but the new chips are likely to face US trade sanctions on China.

Nano-imprinting lithography is used as an alternative to ultraviolet (EUV) and deep ultraviolet (DUV) photolithography technology, which is used in the most advanced semiconductor device fabrication. 

Currently, Netherlands-based ASML is the only supplier of EUV and DUV technology, the world’s most advanced chipmaking machines that are used for mass-producing chips below 7nm. However, with the cost of EUV machines running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, EUV technology is inaccessible to many of the smaller players in the chip market.

Meanwhile, like other chip makers,  ASML has been banned from exporting its EUV technology to Chinese customers as a result of US sanctions.

Last month, Japan-based Canon announced it would be launching a nano-imprint lithography (NIL) machine that it claims is capable of producing parts down to a 5nm node, and could eventually produce 2mn nodes once the technology has been refined even further.

Unlike conventional photolithography equipment which transfers a circuit pattern by projecting it onto the resist coated wafer, Canon’s new technology will instead press a mask imprinted with the circuit pattern on the resist on the wafer like a stamp.

Where the traditional manufacturing process requires the use of an optical mechanism, by removing the need for that step, Canon said it will be able to reduce the cost of ownership of machines.

"The price will have one digit less than ASML’s EUVs,” said CEO Fujio Mitarai, in comments reported by The Japan Times, but added that a final decision around pricing has yet to be made. Canon did not provide a timeframe for when the machines would be available.

Export curbs introduced by the Japanese government, which has been under pressure from the US to enact trade restrictions to China, do not explicitly refer to nano-imprint technology. But Mitarai also said that despite the potential grey area relating to Japanese export sanctions, his understanding was that exports of anything beyond 14nm technology is banned, so the company wouldn’t be able to sell the new technology to China.

Japan continues to boost domestic chip industry

In the wake of supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and the US-China tech trade war, countries worldwide have ramped up efforts to make chip domestically. In April 2023, the Japanese government pledged ¥70 billion for projects to develop and make next-gen chips in the country, including a deal with Rapidus to make 2nm chips in Japan by 2025.

Then in May, Micron announced plans to invest up to ¥500 billion to bring extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) to Japan, making it the first company to bring this production method to the country.

Micron said it plans to use these machines to make the next generation of dynamic random access memory (DRAM), also known as 1-gamma chips, at its Hiroshima plant. DRAM chips are widely used in digital electronics where low-cost and high-capacity memory is required.

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