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  • Writer's pictureKartik Buddha

Navigating Precision: Exploring Positioning Systems in Micro and Nano Lithography Tools

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

1. Introduction

Positioning systems play a pivotal role in micro and nano lithography, enabling precise control and manipulation of samples and devices. In this deep dive article, we will delve into the world of positioning systems used in both research and industrial settings. We will explore various positioning technologies, compare their advantages and disadvantages, and discuss how they align with different lithography techniques. Additionally, we will shed light on the software and control system challenges associated with achieving high positioning accuracy and speed requirements, along with the necessary trade-offs.

2. Positioning Technologies in Micro and Nano Lithography Tools

Micro and nano lithography tools require extremely precise and rapid positioning systems. Mechanical stages have been the workhorse but are being supplemented or replaced by newer technologies as the demands for precision and speed increase. Air bearings offer higher speeds with reduced friction, piezoelectric stages provide unparalleled precision, and magnetic levitation stages combine high speed with precision. Each of these technologies comes with its own set of advantages and challenges and must be chosen carefully based on the specific requirements of the lithography application in question.

2a. Mechanical Stages

Mechanical stages have been foundational in positioning systems. These stages employ motors and precision screws to move the wafer or mask with high precision.


Linear stages: These stages move in one dimension. They usually consist of a flat platform and a linear guide that ensures that the motion is restricted to a straight line.

Rotary stages: These stages are capable of rotating the platform around a fixed point. They are often used in conjunction with linear stages for alignment tasks.

XYZ stages: These stages combine three linear stages to provide motion in three dimensions. They are often used for applications where precise positioning in 3D space is required.


Stepper motors: Commonly used in mechanical stages, these motors move in discrete steps. The rotation angle of each step is fixed, allowing for precise control without a feedback system.

Servo motors: These are rotary motors that allow for continuous rotation and precise angular position control. They are typically used with a feedback control system for higher precision.

Precision Screws

Ball screws: These mechanical devices convert rotational motion into linear motion. They have very low friction which allows for high mechanical efficiency.

Lead screws: Similar to ball screws but generally simpler and less efficient due to higher friction. They are, however, often cheaper and may be self-locking which can be an advantage in certain applications.

  • Relatively simple and robust.

  • Proven technology with well-established methods.

  • Limited resolution and repeatability.

  • Slower speed compared to newer technologies.

  • Sensitive to vibrations and temperature changes.

2b. Air Bearings

Air bearings use a thin film of pressurized air to lift and support stages, minimizing friction and allowing for smoother and faster movement.


Orifice-compensated bearings: These use a constant source of pressurized air which escapes through small orifices, creating a thin air film. This type is less sensitive to changes in the load but requires a more consistent air supply.

Porous media bearings: Instead of orifices, these use a porous material to distribute the air. They are more tolerant of variations in the air supply but are less stiff.

Externally pressurized bearings: These have a continuous supply of air pressure and are capable of compensating for varying loads.

  • High precision and repeatability.

  • Less sensitive to external disturbances compared to mechanical stages.

  • Higher speeds are achievable.

  • Requires a consistent and clean supply of dry air.

  • More expensive than mechanical stages.

2c. Piezoelectric Stages

Piezoelectric stages harness the piezoelectric effect, where certain materials change shape under an electric field, to perform fine adjustments in positioning.


Stack actuators: Multiple layers of piezoelectric material are stacked together. When a voltage is applied, each layer expands or contracts, and the cumulative effect produces a relatively large motion.

Shear actuators: These use the piezoelectric effect to produce a shearing motion. They are often used for applications requiring high speed and small displacements.

Tube actuators: These are tubes made of piezoelectric material that can contract or expand radially when a voltage is applied. They are often used for nano-positioning tasks where motion in multiple axes is required.

  • Extremely high precision, down to the sub-nanometer level.

  • Fast response times.

  • Minimal heat generation.

  • Limited range of motion compared to mechanical stages.

  • Can be expensive, especially for high-precision applications.

2d. Magnetic Levitation Stages

Magnetic levitation stages use magnetic fields to levitate and position the stage. This allows for frictionless motion and is well-suited for applications requiring high speeds and precision.


Active Magnetic Levitation: Utilizes electromagnetic coils that are actively controlled to maintain the position and orientation of the stage.

Passive Magnetic Levitation: Employs permanent magnets and requires no active control but is less stable compared to active levitation.

Combination: Combines active and passive elements for stability and precision.

Feedback Systems

Laser interferometry: Often used in conjunction with magnetic levitation stages for high-precision positioning tasks.

Magnetic sensors: These can be used for feedback control in magnetic levitation systems.

  • Frictionless motion allows for high speeds and high precision.

  • Less wear and tear due to the absence of contact between moving parts.

  • Good scalability and adaptability.

  • Complex control systems.

  • Sensitivity to external magnetic fields.

  • Can be expensive.

3. Matching Positioning Systems with Lithography Techniques

Different lithography techniques have varied demands, and as such, require different positioning technologies. Photolithography, electron beam lithography, nanoimprint lithography, extreme ultraviolet lithography, and scanning probe lithography each have unique challenges that are met by deploying specific positioning systems and integrating them with sophisticated control systems. This selection and integration are crucial to ensure the efficiency, accuracy, and reliability of lithography processes, especially as the scale of features continues to decrease and the complexity of patterns increases.

3a. Photolithography

Photolithography is a widely-used process in semiconductor manufacturing where patterns are transferred from a photomask to a light-sensitive chemical photoresist on the substrate.

Positioning Challenges

Alignment Precision: Accurate alignment of the photomask with the wafer is critical to ensure the integrity of the patterns.

Stage Movement Stability: Maintaining stable movement of the stage is necessary to prevent blurring during exposure.

Suitable Positioning Technologies

Mechanical Stages: Traditional mechanical stages with servo motors and linear guides have been historically used for alignment and step-and-repeat motions.

Air Bearings: For higher throughput and better precision, air bearings are often used, especially in step-and-scan systems.

Integration with Control Systems

Feedback Control: High-resolution encoders and laser interferometers are integrated for real-time feedback control to ensure alignment and stability.

Vibration Isolation: Active or passive vibration isolation systems may be implemented to minimize external disturbances affecting the precision.

3b. Electron Beam Lithography

Electron beam lithography (EBL) is a specialized technique used for creating extremely fine patterns, down to the nanometer scale, by using a focused beam of electrons to expose the resist.

Positioning Challenges

Ultra-high Precision: Due to the fine scale, positioning systems must offer ultra-high precision.

Real-time Corrections: The electron beam is sensitive to environmental factors, requiring real-time position corrections.

Suitable Positioning Technologies

Piezoelectric Stages: Due to their extremely high precision and fast response times, piezoelectric stages are often used in EBL.

Magnetic Levitation Stages: For certain EBL systems, magnetic levitation stages can be used for frictionless, high-precision positioning.

Integration with Control Systems

Real-time Feedback Control: Systems using high-resolution sensors and sophisticated control algorithms are necessary for maintaining the electron beam’s position and focus.

Temperature Compensation: Active thermal management systems may be used to minimize temperature variations affecting positioning.

3c. Nanoimprint Lithography

Nanoimprint Lithography (NIL) is a method for fabricating nanometer-scale patterns by mechanically pressing a mold into a resist on a substrate.

Positioning Challenges

Force Control: Precise control of the force applied by the mold is critical.

Alignment: Accurate alignment of the mold with respect to the substrate is necessary.

Suitable Positioning Technologies

Mechanical Stages: Mechanical stages with force feedback can be used for controlling the pressing force.

Piezoelectric Stages: Piezoelectric stages can be employed for fine adjustments in the alignment of the mold.

Integration with Control Systems

Force Feedback: Force sensors can be integrated into the system to provide real-time feedback on the pressing force.

Alignment Control: High-resolution optical or capacitive sensors can be used for alignment control.

3d. Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography

Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUVL) is an advanced lithography technique that uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light to create patterns on the nanometer scale.

Positioning Challenges

Vibration Sensitivity: The process is highly sensitive to vibrations due to the extremely short wavelength of EUV light.

Thermal Management: The high energy of EUV light can lead to thermal effects affecting positioning.

Suitable Positioning Technologies

Magnetic Levitation Stages: Due to the need for high precision and sensitivity to vibrations, magnetic levitation stages are well-suited for EUVL.

Air Bearings: For certain applications, air bearings can also be employed for high-speed and precise positioning.

Integration with Control Systems

Active Vibration Isolation: Given the sensitivity to vibrations, active vibration isolation systems are essential.

Thermal Management: Advanced thermal management systems, including liquid cooling, are integrated to stabilize temperatures.

3e. Scanning Probe Lithography

Scanning Probe Lithography (SPL) is a versatile lithography technique that uses a physical probe to create patterns at the nanoscale. There are various types of SPL, including Dip Pen Nanolithography, Nanoshaving, Nanografting and Thermal Scanning Probe Lithography.

Positioning Challenges

High-precision Positioning: The probe must be positioned with high precision over the substrate to create intricate nanoscale patterns.

Stable and Controlled Motion: The probe must move smoothly and in a controlled manner over the substrate to prevent any discrepancies in the pattern.

Fast Response Time: Quick adjustments to the probe's position are essential for efficient patterning.

Suitable Positioning Technologies

Piezoelectric Stages: Piezoelectric stages are ideal for SPL because they offer high precision and can quickly adjust the position of the scanning probe.

XYZ Stages: To accurately control the substrate's position, high-precision XYZ stages are often used.

Integration with Control Systems

Real-time Feedback: In SPL, sensors are often used to provide real-time feedback on the probe’s position and force, allowing for quick adjustments during the patterning process.

High-Speed Scanning Control: Advanced control algorithms are required to ensure the high-speed scanning movements of the probe are coordinated with the positioning of the substrate.

Environmental Control: Since SPL can be sensitive to environmental factors like temperature and humidity, it’s crucial to monitor and control these parameters during the process.

4. Software and Control System Challenges

Micro and nano lithography tools are heavily reliant on the incredible precision and speed of positioning systems. Achieving high accuracy is an intricate ballet of feedback control systems, vibration isolation, and temperature stabilization. Balancing the often contradictory requirements of speed and precision calls for sophisticated motion profiles and predictive algorithms.

4a. Achieving High Accuracy

As we delve into the nano-realm, positioning accuracy becomes paramount. With features at the scale of nanometers, even the slightest error can have drastic consequences. External factors such as vibrations, temperature changes, and electromagnetic interference can affect accuracy.

Feedback Control Systems

Feedback control systems are crucial for maintaining accuracy. These systems use sensors to constantly measure the position of the stage and adjust its movement accordingly.

Encoders: Encoders, especially laser interferometers, can offer extremely high resolution and are widely used in feedback systems to measure stage position with nanometer accuracy.

Error mapping and correction: Sophisticated software can map errors over the entire travel range of a positioning stage and use this data to actively correct for systematic errors.

Vibration Isolation

Positioning systems need to combat external vibrations which can come from various sources such as air conditioning systems or even nearby traffic.

Active isolation: Active isolation systems use sensors and actuators to counteract vibrations. This is particularly effective for high-frequency vibrations.

Passive isolation: Passive systems use mechanical means such as springs or pneumatic isolators to absorb vibrations. They are often used for low-frequency vibrations.

Temperature Stabilization

Thermal management: Keeping the temperature stable within the lithography tool is critical. Active thermal management systems can include liquid cooling and precise temperature sensors.

Materials: The use of materials that have low thermal expansion coefficients in the construction of positioning stages can help reduce the influence of temperature variations.

4b. Balancing Speed and Precision

In the semiconductor industry, productivity is key. Faster production rates can significantly lower costs. However, increasing speed can have detrimental effects on precision.

Overshooting and Settling

When stages move quickly, they can overshoot their target position or oscillate before settling. This can be especially problematic in systems that require frequent starts and stops.

Motion profiles: Implementing S-curve motion profiles, where acceleration and deceleration are smoothly controlled, can reduce overshooting.

Damping: Control algorithms can incorporate damping techniques to minimize oscillations during settling.

Predictive Algorithms

Leveraging predictive algorithms can help in anticipating the necessary movements and making adjustments in advance.

Feed-forward control: Unlike feedback control that reacts to errors, feed-forward control anticipates disturbances and makes corrections before they affect the positioning.

Look-ahead control: This involves the controller looking ahead in the command queue and planning movements to optimize both speed and accuracy.

4c. Handling System Complexity

The advanced positioning systems used in micro and nano lithography are inherently complex. Handling this complexity in terms of integration, calibration, maintenance, and troubleshooting is challenging.

System Integration

Modular designs: Employing modular designs allows for easier integration as well as scalability. This design principle enables various components to be easily replaced or upgraded.

Standardization: Using standardized interfaces and communication protocols simplifies integration and ensures compatibility between components from different manufacturers.

Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Diagnostics and monitoring: Advanced diagnostics tools and real-time monitoring of system performance can facilitate faster identification of issues.

Predictive maintenance: Implementing predictive maintenance strategies using data analytics can forecast equipment failures before they occur, allowing for timely interventions.

Skill Development

Training: Providing comprehensive training for operators and maintenance staff is vital in handling complex systems.

Documentation: Ensuring that detailed and easily accessible documentation is available supports the training process and provides a valuable resource for troubleshooting.

4d. Scalability and Flexibility

As technology advances, lithography processes evolve. Positioning systems must be flexible and scalable to accommodate different lithography techniques and to integrate new technologies.

Reconfigurable Systems

Hardware: Hardware components should be designed so that they can be easily reconfigured or replaced to meet new requirements.

Software: Flexible software architectures, such as those based on object-oriented programming, can be easily modified and expanded.

Open Architectures

Integration: Open architectures allow for easier integration of new technologies and components, as they are based on widely accepted standards and protocols.

Collaboration: Open architectures foster collaboration between companies and research institutions, as they facilitate the sharing of knowledge and technologies.

Preparing for the Future

Research and Development: Investing in research and development is crucial for staying ahead. Developing new technologies and methodologies for positioning systems will pave the way for future advancements in lithography.

Industry Partnerships: Building partnerships with industry leaders and participating in consortia can help in sharing knowledge and resources, driving innovation forward.

5. Conclusion

As we traverse the world of micro and nano lithography, it becomes evident that positioning systems are critical in the pursuit of miniaturization and precision. From mechanical stages to magnetic levitation, each positioning technology brings its unique set of advantages and challenges. The choice of a positioning system is closely intertwined with the lithography technique, and striking a balance between accuracy and speed is a challenging task achieved through intricate control systems and software. As the semiconductor industry continues to push the boundaries, the evolution of positioning systems will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the technologies of tomorrow.

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