Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) Increases its Vital Role beyond Semiconductor to Display and Bio Industries

As semiconductor processes and technologies advance, the importance of micrometry and more importantly, atomic force microscopy (AFM), has been extended from beyond semiconductor industries, into the display and bio industries. AFM is a microscopy technology with the ability to make nanoscale measurements (109 magnification) due to its outstanding spatial resolution in the vertical (z) direction. AFM provides tens of millions of times magnification greater than other microscopes like scanning electron microscopes (SEM), which offers magnifications in the thousands and hundreds of thousands range. AFM’s measurement ability is vital in air, vacuum, and liquid environments, obtaining quantitative 3D information such as topography, angle, roughness, etc, which has propelled AFM technology into gradually displacing commonly used SEMs.

■ AFM extends its role from a key instrument for ultra-fine semiconductor yield to an essential instrument for display and bio sectors.

With circuit line widths shrinking to an ultra-fine level of 3 micrometers, even minor variations in vibration, noise, and temperature can have a substantial effect on semiconductor yields, therefore placing a high focus on defect testing within semiconductor processes and ensuring high quality. While extreme ultraviolet (EUV) equipment was commonly used among foundry companies, it is now being applied and used in memory semiconductor sectors. Notably, global memory chip manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix are reportedly applying EUV equipment into their production processes due to its versatility in providing accurate 3D information and ability to minimize distortions during observation.

In particular, the use of AFM is becoming increasingly prominent in biomedical, pharmaceutical, and cell biology industries, where precise topography measurements within liquids are crucial, such as for cells and DNA. AFM excels in topography and detecting defects in display panel production, delivering more precise results in comparison to conventional methods like SEMs.

■ AFM Market Forecast 2023~2029

The global AFM market size is projected to reach a value of USD 450 million in 2023 and is forecast to exceed USD 600 million by 2029. Although the current AFM market constitutes just 10% of the SEM market size, the AFM market’s promising prospects are underscored by its increasing diversification and expansion, exceeding all expectations.

■ Park Systems’ True Non-Contact™ Mode technology dominates the global AFM market, alongside key players Bruker and Oxford Instruments

Amidst the remarkable advancements within the AFM industry, a Korean company has quietly risen to global prominence alongside key industry players. Park Systems Corp. (Park Systems) is the sole developer and provider of AFM technology in Korea, pioneering domestic AFM production efforts. Since its inception in 1997, Park Systems (formerly Park System Instruments, PSIA) has marked an average growth rate of 30% per annum. Last year, it ranked No.1 in the global AFM market, encompassing both industrial and research-grade instruments with a significant 20.3% market share and surpassing its competitor Bruker, which held an 18.8% market share.

Park System’s flagship AFM instruments: NX10 (Left) NX-Wafer (Right)

Park Systems’ remarkable growth is attributed to its True Non-Contact™ Mode technology, attributed to over 15 years of research. Typically, AFM uses a ‘Tapping Mode’ to project a sample’s topography by making direct physical contact between the probe and the sample. However, this approach responds to the risk of observation errors, as prolonged contact may potentially damage both the probe and the sample.

Park Systems stands as the only company to have achieved true non-contact technology, meaning that there is no contact between the tip and the sample. Park Systems has consistently increased its investments in research and development to keep up with its differentiated technology, with approximately 40% of its headquarters employees dedicated to R&D investments.

Demonstrating its dedication to innovation, the company invested in Molecular Vista, a distinguished leader in AFM tools designed for molecular-level understanding. Additionally, in 2022, Park Systems expanded its portfolio with the acquisition of Accurion GmbH, a Germany-based company specializing in imaging spectroscopic ellipsometers (ISE) and advanced vibration isolation technology.

The company currently holds a total of 43 domestic and international patents and annual orders amounting to KRW 100 billion, recording a historic milestone. To accommodate the market’s growing demand, Park Systems plans to enhance productivity by moving into the SK Hynix-led Yongin Semiconductor Cluster in 2027, a semiconductor powerhouse ecosystem, and breaking ground on its new headquarters located in Gwacheon Knowledge Information Town in 2026.

■ Pioneering leaders: Park Systems, Bruker, Oxford Instruments, with a combined 50% market share

The top three manufacturers in the current global AFM industry are Park Systems Corp., Bruker Corporation, and Oxford Instruments plc, which collectively hold approximately 50% of the global AFM market share.

Bruker Corporation (Bruker), a German company established in 1960, brings over six decades of experience in the manufacturing of AFM instruments, with a range of research equipment including Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometers, mass spectrometers, and associated X-ray equipment. Bruker is recognized for its dedication to innovation, contributing to its established position in the industry.

Bruker’s ForceRobot 400 BioAFM

Oxford Instruments plc (Oxford Instruments), a prominent life science company based in the UK, is recognized not only for its AFM technology but for its contributions to various analysis and measurement technologies ranging from optical imaging microscopes to Raman imaging microscopes, establishing Oxford Instruments as a versatile player in the field.

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