To make the chips that power modern devices, manufacturers go through a lot of silicon – and to make sure that their silicon is in the right place on their chips, companies from Intel to Samsung to Apple rely on technology developed in the Galilee town of Migdal Haemek.
Not quite the place you would expect to be the hub of a small but extremely important industry without which the modern tech age would be impossible – but with some 500 employees, mostly at its Israel facility, KLA-Tencor is one of the biggest Israeli tech success stories, if one of the least known, according to Dr. Ami Applebaum, its president.
“We are the biggest metrology firm in the world. We’ve been in business for 30 years, and have seen technologies and companies come and go, from the PCs manufactured by various companies 20 years ago to the smartphones and tablets that are all the rage today.”
The common denominator between all the companies and products? The overlay metrology technology developed by KLA-Tencor to ensure the validity of each chip that comes off the assembly line, said Applebaum.
Metrology is one of the more esoteric industries connected to device development, but among the most important. Among the products KLA-Tencor makes are systems to check for uniform silicon wafer thickness, shape and flatness; tools to inspect the quality of reticles (glass plates with chrome on one side in which a pattern is etched and then transferred to a silicon wafer); systems for the automated optical inspection and metrology of microelectronic devices on a variety of wafer substrates; advanced defect detection and classification of micro-pits, bumps, and particles on media and drives; and so on.
“The bottom line is that without our machines, companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, and many others would not be able to manufacture chips and develop new devices,” said Applebaum.
“In order to work with core software, the chips that are installed in devices need to be uniform among all devices, and the more complicated and smaller a chip gets, the more precise our technology has to be,” said Ori Tadmor, head of KLA-Tencor’s Overlay Metrology division.
“In a silicon wafer, the chips are made of pure silicon and the manufacturing process involves adding layers of silicon. There can be as many as 50 layers on the round discs of silicon that are pressed into chips. Each chip is like a little city, with components that manage traffic, on/off control, when a component should activate, and much more. In order for a chip to work, the layers and components in a chip need to be in exactly the right place, and on the same place on all chips of that type.”
The machines KLA-Tencor uses can detect differences in positioning of components by as little as ten microns, said Tadmor.
While one might think that a company like Apple would prefer to develop its own technology to check the integrity of its chips – Apple generally does things in-house, and it can afford to spend the money to develop the metrology systems that check the chips – it prefers not to do so, said Applebaum.
“It’s a matter of each company doing what it does best,” said Applebaum. “We have been doing this very successfully for a long time, and it requires not just expertise, but intuition – a sense of whether or not something looks right even if the data looks OK. I know of a number of companies that tried to do metrology in-house, and they all failed.”
Beyond that, the trick in metrology is not just to ensure that the production chips of today are standardized, but to develop systems that will be able to accurately evaluate the chips that will power future devices, even before they have been designed by manufacturers.
“Apple is about to introduce the iPhone 7, but we are already working on the technology to assess the chips that will go into their future devices,” said Applebaum.
Companies KLA-Tencor work with share their future chip designs, and the Israeli firm produces a machine customized for their needs.
With chip sizes, the number of semiconductors, thickness, and other form factors changing with each new device release, the company has to stay far ahead of the market in order to ensure that new devices work properly, said Applebaum.
“Today, the most advanced chips used in devices are 10 nanometer chips, but we are already working on solutions to check 6 nm chips. In less than a decade, the big companies will be working on 3 nm chips, and we will be ready for those as well, in advance even of the chip design stage – because without our machines, manufacturers will be unable to check the integrity of the chips, and will be unable to advance to the production stage.”
As a world leader in the overlay metrology business – the company has at least half the world market – KLA-Tencor would be a valuable prize for any multinational in the chip business, and in fact, Lam Research, an American designer of semiconductor processing equipment, is set to acquire KLA-Tencor (the acquisition has not yet been completed, Applebaum said, adding that “currently we have no formal ties with Lam”).
Despite that, Applebaum expects the company to remain exactly where it is – in Migdal Haemek, “the real Silicon Valley of Israel. We employ hundreds of people directly, and possibly thousands of people among our second and third ring suppliers of products and services – all here in Israel, and many of them in the Galilee. We’ve created an entire ecosystem that shows off what is possible in the so-called ‘periphery,’ away from the tech centers of Tel Aviv and Herzliya. We have the talent, the skills, and the technology right here – and no matter what happens, I am confident we will be here for many years to come.”