The shortage in photomasks is continuing despite the global economic downturn due to high demand for the commodity from Chinese chip fabless and foundry companies.

Photomask makers, Toppan, Photronics, and Dai Nippon Printing, are all maintaining factory operation rates of 100%, sources said.

Some Chinese chip companies are even paying extra to shorten the delivery time, they also said.

Photomasks are made out of quartz blank masks that have circuit patterns drawn on them. They are similar to film for film cameras.

The patterns on the photomask are imprinted on wafers through lithography. This ultraviolet process uses dozens of photomasks that are called sets.

Thinner circuit patterns for advanced chips require more photomasks. For example, a legacy process may require 30 units but the most advanced process will require 70 to 80 units. 

Last year, China recorded 3,243 fabless chip companies, a rise caused by US sanctions. The launch of the DUV 7nm process by Chinese foundry SMIC also exasperated the shortage in photomasks. The DUV process requires more masks compared to EUV for multi-patterning.

The rise in the number of AI chip companies is also another cause, which was spurred by the popularity of ChatGPT.

Toppan said in its latest fiscal quarter earnings report (July to September) that strong demand for photomasks is expected to continue within the year. Dai Nippon Printing also concurred on its April to September period earnings report.

Toppan said it plans to expand its photomask production capacity through its global production facilities.

However, sources said photomask makers’ increased capacity won’t be sufficient to meet demand, making a price rise in the commodity inevitable next year.