The Enormous attempt to produce a small microchip

Written by Don Clark

Some have more than 50 billion small transistors that are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are made on gigantic, ultraclean factory room floors that can be seven stories high and run the length of four football fields.

Microchips are in many ways the lifeblood of the modern economy. It powers computers, smartphones, cars, devices and scores of other electronics. But the world’s demand for them has increased since the pandemic, which also caused disruptions in the supply chain, resulting in a global shortage.

That, in turn, stimulates inflation and raises alarms that the United States is becoming too dependent on chips made abroad. The United States accounts for only about 12% of global semiconductor production capacity; more than 90% of the most advanced chips come from Taiwan.

One of the machines used to etch materials from silicon wafers or microchips is being manufactured at Intel’s complex in Chandler, Ariz., Nov. 17, 2021. (Philip Cheung / The New York Times)

Intel, a Silicon Valley titan that is trying to restore its long lead in chip manufacturing technology, is making a $ 20 billion bet that it can help reduce the chip shortage. It is building two factories in its chip-making complex in Chandler, Arizona, which will take three years to complete, and recently announced plans for a potentially larger expansion, with new sites in New Albany, Ohio, and Magdeburg, Germany.

Why does making millions of these small components mean building – and spending – so large? A look at Intel manufacturing plants in Chandler and Hillsboro, Oregon, provides some answers.

What chips do

Chips, as integrated circuits, began to replace individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of these small components are produced on a piece of silicon and bonded together to work together. The resulting chips store data, amplify radio signals and perform other operations; Intel is famous for a variety of microprocessors, which perform most of the computing functions of a computer.

Intel has managed to shrink transistors on its microprocessors to mind-bending size. But rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. can make even thinner components, a major reason why Apple chose to make the chips for its latest iPhones.

Such victories by a company based in Taiwan, an island that China claims to be its own, add to the signs of a growing technological gap that could jeopardize advances in computers, consumer devices and military hardware from both China’s and natural’s ambitions. threats in Taiwan, such as earthquakes and droughts. And it has shed some light on Intel’s efforts to bring back the technology leader.

How chips are made

Chipmakers are packing more and more transistors on each piece of silicon, which is why technology is doing more every year. It is also the reason that new chip factories cost billions and that fewer companies can pay them to build them.

In addition to paying for buildings and machines, companies have to spend heavily to develop the complex processing steps used to make plate-sized silicon wafers – which is why factories are called “fabs”.

Huge machines project designs for chips across each wafer, and then deposit and etch layers of materials to make their transistors and connect them. Up to 25 wafers move simultaneously between those systems in special pods on automated overhead tracks.

Processing a waffle takes thousands of steps and up to two months. In recent years, TSMC has set the pace for exporting, operating “gigafabs”, sites with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, vice president of market research firm TechInsights, estimates that each site can process more than 100,000 wafers per month. He estimates the capacity of Intel’s two planned $ 10 billion facilities in Arizona at approximately 40,000 wafers a month each.

How chips are packaged

After processing, the wafer is divided into individual chips. These are tested and packaged in plastic packages to connect them to circuit boards or parts of a system.

That step has become a new battlefield because it is harder to make transistors even smaller. Companies now stack multiple chips or place them next to each other in a package, and connect them to act as one piece of silicon.

The site of one of Intel’s future factories in Chandler, Ariz., Nov. 17, 2021. (Philip Cheung / The New York Times)

Where packing a handful of chips together is now routine, Intel has developed one advanced product that uses new technology to bundle a remarkable 47 individual chips, including some made by TSMC and other companies, such as those produced in Intel fabs.

What makes chip factories different

Intel chips typically sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. Intel in March released its fastest microprocessor for desktops, for example, at a starting price of $ 739. A piece of fabric that is invisible to the human eye can destroy one. Fabs therefore need to be cleaner than a hospital operating room and need complex systems to filter air and regulate temperature and humidity.

Fabs should also be opaque to just about any vibration, which can cause costly equipment misuse. So fab clean rooms are built on enormous concrete slabs on special shock absorbers.

The water purification plant at the Intel chip maker in Hillsboro, Ore., Sept. 22, 2021. (Photo: Philip Cheung / The New York Times)

Also critical is the ability to move large amounts of liquids and gases. The upper level of Intel’s factories, which are about 70 feet high, have giant fans to help circulate air to the clean room directly below. Under the clean room are thousands of pumps, transformers, power cabinets, utility pipes and chillers that connect to production machines.

It needs water

Fabs are water-intensive operations. This is because water is needed to clean wafers at many stages of the production process.

The two sites of Intel in Chandler collectively draw about 11 million gallons of water per day from the local utility. Intel’s future expansion will require significantly more, an apparent challenge for a drought-stricken state like Arizona, which has cut water supplies to farmers. But the farm actually consumes much more water than a soap plant.

An Intel employee holds a silicon wafer used to make chips at the company’s complex in Chandler, Ariz., Nov. 17, 2021. (Photo: Philip Cheung / The New York Times)

Intel says its Chandler sites, which rely on supplies from three rivers and a system of wells, recover about 82% of the freshwater they use through filtration systems, ponds and other equipment. That water is sent back to the city, which operates treatment facilities funded by Intel, and which redistributes it for irrigation and other non-drinking uses.

Intel hopes to help boost water supply in Arizona and other states by 2030, by working with environmental groups and others on projects that conserve and restore water for local communities.

How fabs are built

To build its future factories, Intel will need about 5,000 skilled builders over three years.

They have a lot to do. Excavation of the foundations is expected to remove 890,000 cubic yards of dirt, with a rate of one dump truck removed per minute, said Dan Doron, Intel chief builder.

The company expects to pour more than 445,000 cubic yards of concrete and use 100,000 tons of reinforcing steel for the foundations – more than during the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

An Intel employee with a tray of Ponte Vecchio microchips before the heat spreader is attached to the company’s complex in Chandler, Ariz., Nov. 17, 2021. (Photo: Philip Cheung / The New York Times)

Some cranes for construction are so large that more than 100 trucks are needed to bring the pieces to collect them, Doron said. The cranes will, among other things, lift 55 tons of coolers for the new factories.

Patrick Gelsinger, who became the CEO of Intel a year ago, lobbies Congress to provide subsidies for factory construction and tax credits for investment in hardware. To manage Intel’s investment risk, it plans to focus on building fab “shells” that can be equipped with equipment to respond to market changes.

To address the chip shortage, Gelsinger will have to do well on its plan to produce chips designed by other companies. But one company can only do so much; products such as phones and cars require components from many suppliers, such as older chips. And no country can stand alone in semiconductors. While stimulating domestic manufacturing may reduce supply risks somewhat, the chip sector will continue to rely on a complex global web of raw materials, manufacturing equipment, design software, talent and specialized manufacturing companies.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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