An employee works in the clean room on the AIMS® EUV system from ZEISS SMT

AIMS® systems have consistently demonstrated their value in the semiconductor industry for 30 years. Mask manufacturers rely on AIMS® for inspecting photomasks, to assess critical defects before they are used in wafer fabs. The latest generation AIMS® EUV can also inspect EUV masks.

A man in a cleanroom suit holds a photomask in front of him and is reflected in it

30 years of AIMS® – 30 years of defect-free photomasks

The photomask is a linchpin in the lithography process for manufacturing microchips. It carries the chip design in the form of transparent and/or opaque areas, which are projected from the mask onto the wafer. Up to one hundred masks may be required to produce a single microchip. Mask production presents a formidable technological challenge, demanding the utmost precision in the nanometer range.

Any critical defect in a mask will invariably manifest on the exposed wafer, resulting in significant subsequent costs. That means a flawless mask is not just a necessity but a fundamental prerequisite for economically sound and sustainable microchip production. The meticulous detection of defects prior to mask utilization is of paramount importance, as it allows for a thorough assessment of their potential impact throughout the subsequent lithography process. This level of scrutiny demands nanometer-level precision.

AIMS® sees what the scanner sees

This is where the AIMS® mask qualification systems from the ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology (SMT) division come into play. AIMS® stands for "Aerial Image Measurement System." At its core, AIMS® utilizes a cutting-edge microscope. It analyses the photomask under the same optical conditions as the wafer scanner. Critical defects are assessed within the AIMS® system to decide whether repairs are necessary. Post-repair, the AIMS® is used again for subsequent success control (repair verification). These systems encompass all lithography technologies, endorsing robust processes, heightened productivity, and cost-effective solutions. In essence, AIMS® stands as a pivotal technology within SMT, significantly contributing to value creation.

30 years of defect analysis

Recognizing the importance of mask qualification early on, researchers and developers at ZEISS SMT pioneered the first AIMS® system in collaboration with IBM back in 1993. With 30 years of experience, SMT continues to drive the future of mask qualification systems, pushing boundaries in optics and physics.

  • Milestones of Mask Qualification

  • 1993

    Development of the Aerial Image Measurement Algorithm

  • 1994

    Market launch of the first 365/248nm ZEISS AIMS

  • 1999

    First 193nm ZEISS AIMS dispatched to the industry

  • 2006

    Market launch of the first 193nm immersion AIMS®

  • 2014

    Market launch of the ZEISS AIMS 1x-193i for the 193nm high-end market

  • 2017

    First ZEISS AIMS EUV dispatched

  • 2018

    ZEISS AIMS fab neo with 248nm wavelength for the mature market

  • 2022

    Digital Flex Illu for ZEISS AIMS EUV

Two employees work on a screen in the clean room and discuss results of their latest research

From DUV and EUV to High-NA-EUV

AIMS® represents an extensive range of measuring systems. The systems are each meticulously tailored for various illumination wavelengths in semiconductor lithography – including systems for 248nm photomasks, 193nm high-end masks, EUV, and the forward-looking high-NA EUV systems with a wavelength in the low double-digit nanometer range. Uniquely, AIMS® allows for dynamic changes in illumination schemes during operation, a capability exclusive to this system.

AIMS® AutoAnalysis – an automation application – supports all AIMS® generations, facilitating precise and fully automatic error analysis. This automation not only ensures standardized results but also mitigates the risk of human errors. AIMS® AutoAnalysis plays a crucial role in maintaining standardized defect analysis, reducing cycle times, and enhancing the overall process's reliability. Furthermore, these systems remain open to additional platform extensions, such as Digital Flex Illu – computer-controlled illumination for ZEISS EUV high-end systems.

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No chips without AIMS®: AIMS® systems have long been seen as the industry standard for mask qualification. For 30 years they have represented a guarantee for defect-free photomasks and a key technology for added value from SMT.

Ute Buttgereit

Head of Product Management AIMS®
An employee carefully checks the photomasks in the clean room

From yesterday to the day after tomorrow

The first ZEISS AIMS system was dispatched in 1993; the platform is commemorating its 30th anniversary this year. Today the systems are an integral part of the mask manufacturing process and guarantee the delivery of defect-free masks to wafer fabs worldwide. AIMS® has undergone continuous development since its inception, aligning with the current state of research and adapting to the changing dynamics and requirements of the semiconductor market. The system's automation is also advancing, exemplified by AIMS® Auto Analysis and its integration with other systems such as the MeRiT® mask repair system via the Advanced Repair Center. Here's to defect-free photomasks for the microchips of the future for another 30 years.

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Author Ute Buttgereit Head of Product Management AIMS®