The most precise machine in human history
A firm belief and superior technology created steppers
The trigger that propelled the semiconductor industry
A stepper is a machine used to reduce the size of circuit patterns on a photomask (a large glass plate for creating fine, complicated electronic circuit patterns) by employing an ultra-high-performance lens to project the patterns onto a silicon plate, called a silicon wafer. It is equipment that plays an essential role in semiconductor lithography manufacturing.
The individual technologies required in order to realize it were available at Nippon Kogaku. However, collaboration between three kinds of technology was also needed for smooth development: "optical design" to create lenses, "machine design" for manufacturing precise machinery, and "electronic design" for electronics-related matters. Shoichiro Yoshida, who was the project leader, created the environment that made all of this possible. There was also the firm will to take on the challenge of developing evolved reduction projection exposure equipment which could cope with semiconductor circuits that were certain to become even smaller in the future.
The first stepper prototype, the SR-1, was completed in July 1978. The VLSI Research project gave its performance high evaluation. At that time, a major American precision equipment manufacturer had already introduced reduction projection exposure equipment, and steppers were in the spotlight as the mainstay next-generation semiconductor manufacturing equipment.
Mr. Yoshida was certain that using steppers was the only viable exposure method that could effectively handle the evolution of semiconductors. He decided to commercialize the product and started making a prototype for mass production. In March, 1980, the SR-2 was completed. This was the start of the stepper business at Nippon Kogaku, and this led to the rise of the semiconductor industry.
Contributing to realize a super-smart society
Technologies and knowledge cultivated through the stepper business are also now utilized for FPD lithography systems that are the manufacturing equipment used for flat panel displays such as LCDs.
Steppers expose semiconductor circuit patterns onto silicon wafers. On the other hand, FPD lithography systems project switch functions that control each RGB color onto glass plates which are the base of FPDs.
The equipment is becoming larger to handle production of 10.5th generation glass plates with a size of 2940 x 3370 mm.
Currently, Nikon's FPD lithography systems are utilized for manufacturing various FPD products such as smart devices, tablets, thin home TVs and outdoor digital signage, to support a super-smart society.