China's leading semiconductor equipment maker Advanced Micro-fabrication Equipment (AMEC) recently has announced its winning a final court judgment in Shanghai in a lawsuit involving the infringement of ion etching equipment-related technologies and trade secrets against US-based equipment vendor Lam Research.
This marks the third round of legal battles between AMEC and major American suppliers of semiconductor equipment, and once again the Chinese vendor has emerged victorious. This victory further demonstrates the future potential for Chinese semiconductor equipment makers to secure patent technology advantages in the localized supply chain for equipment.
In 2017, Veeco Instruments, a US-based maker of metal-organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) equipment, filed a patent lawsuit against AMEC, but the Chinese customs in January 2018 detained Veeco Asia's imported MOCVD equipment on the grounds of alleged infringement of AMEC's patents. The incident was seen as crucial leverage for AMEC in its battle with Veeco, and in February 2018, both sides swiftly reached a settlement agreement regarding the patent lawsuit.
Prior to this case, one of the well-known legal battles involving AMEC was with Applied Materials. Gerald Yin, founder of AMEC, had previously worked for the American company before returning to China to found the company in 2004. But three years later, Applied Materials filed a lawsuit against AMEC, claiming that Yin and several other AMEC employees were all its former staff involving patent problems. Following years of legal battles between both parties, they reached a settlement in 2010, agreeing to jointly own the patent family.
In 2009, Lam Research, another former employer of Yin, filed a patent lawsuit in Taiwan against AMEC. But in December 2010, AMEC launched a counter suit against Lam Research with the First Intermediate People's Court of Shanghai Municipality, alleging the infringement of trade secrets related to plasma etching equipment. In March 2017, AMEC emerged victorious in the first instance of the lawsuit.
The case was later appealed to the Shanghai High People's Court, leading to a six-year legal battle. On June 30, 2023, the Shanghai High People's Court issued a final judgment in favor of AMEC. Analysts believe that the company's hard-fought victory in this battle has helped to clear intellectual property barriers that the opponent initially attempted to create to hinder AMEC's entry into the Taiwanese market.
AMEC's Primo Nanova etching machines have already covered etching applications for 14 nm, 7 nm, and 5 nm processes. The company is among five suppliers of etching equipment for TSMC's 7 nm production lines. Etching machine technology is highly challenging, and three dominant suppliers, namely Lam Research, Tokyo Electron, and Applied Materials, collectively hold a global market share of over 90%.
In recent years, AMEC has made significant advancements in the uniformity, stability, and reliability of its etching processes, along with cost advantages. As a result, the company's market share in plasma etching equipment has been growing rapidly. By as of the third quarter of 2022, AMEC had shipped over 2,000 units of plasma etching equipment.
Market analysts said that based on AMEC's experiences of winning in challenging battles, Chinese equipment manufacturers will better understand how to leverage their local advantages to gain a patent edge in the future.