How Intel manufactures semiconductors in a global shortage

Some have more than 50 billion small transistors that are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are made in giant, ultra-clean floors of factory rooms that can be seven stories high and run across four football fields.

Microchips are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the modern economy. They power computers, smartphones, cars, appliances and many other electronic devices. But global demand for them has risen since the pandemic, which also led to supply chain disruptions, leading to global shortages.

This, in turn, is fueling inflation and raising alarms that the United States is becoming too dependent on foreign-made chips. The United States only accounts for about 12 percent of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity; more than 90 percent of the most advanced chips come from Taiwan.

Intel, a Silicon Valley titan seeking to restore its leadership in chip-making technology, is making a $ 20 billion bet that could help alleviate the chip deficit. It is building two factories at its chipmaking complex in Chandler, Arizona, which will take three years to complete, and recently announced plans for a potentially larger expansion, with new locations in New Albany, Ohio, and Magdeburg. Germany.

Why does making millions of these small components mean building – and spending – so big? A look at Intel’s production facilities in Chandler and Hillsboro, Oregon, offers some answers.

Chips, or integrated circuits, began replacing bulky individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of these tiny components are produced in a piece of silicon and connected to work together. The resulting chips store data, amplify radio signals, and perform other operations; Intel is famous for a variety called microprocessor, which perform most of the computing functions of a computer.

Intel has managed to reduce the transistors of its microprocessors to amazing sizes. But rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company can make even smaller components, one of the key reasons Apple chose it to make the chips for its latest iPhones.

These 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 computing, consumer devices and military hardware. both for China’s ambitions and for the natural threats to Taiwan, such as. such as earthquakes and drought. And it has focused on Intel’s efforts to regain technological leadership.

Chip makers are packing more and more transistors into every piece of silicon, which is why technology is doing more every year. It is also the reason why new chip factories cost billions and fewer companies can afford to build them.

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

Huge machines project chip designs through each wafer, and then deposit and engrave layers of materials to create their transistors and connect them. Up to 25 wafers at a time move between these systems in special capsules on automated airways.

Processing a wafer requires thousands of steps and up to two months. TSMC has set the pace for production in recent years, 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 a month. The capacity of the two $ 10 billion Intel facilities in Arizona is about 40,000 wafers a month each.

After processing, the wafer is cut into individual chips. They are provided and wrapped in plastic packages to connect them to circuit boards or parts of a system.

This step has become a new battlefield, because it is more difficult to make transistors even smaller. Companies are now stacking multiple tiles or placing them side by side in a package, connecting them to act as a single piece of silicon.

Where packing a bunch of chips together is now commonplace, Intel has developed an advanced product that uses new technology to group 47 notable individual chips, including some made by TSMC and other companies, as well as those produced at Intel factories.

Intel chips typically sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Intel launched its fastest desktop microprocessor in March, for example, at a starting price of $ 739. A piece of dust invisible to the human eye can ruin one. So fabs need to be cleaner than a hospital operating room and need complex systems to filter the air and regulate temperature and humidity.

Fabs must also be impervious to almost any vibration, which can lead to costly equipment malfunctions. Thus, the fantastic clean rooms are built on huge concrete slabs with special shock absorbers.

The ability to move large amounts of liquids and gases is also essential. The top level of Intel’s factories, which are about 70 feet high, have giant fans to help circulate the air in the clean room directly below. Below the clean room are thousands of pumps, transformers, electrical cabinets, pipes and refrigerators that are connected to production machines.

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

The two Intel sites in Chandler collectively dump about 11 million gallons of water a day from the local company. Intel’s future expansion will require much more, an apparent challenge for a drought-plagued state like Arizona, which has cut water allocations to farmers. But agriculture actually consumes much more water than a chip plant.

Intel says its Chandler sites, which are based on the supply of three rivers and a well system, recover about 82 percent of the fresh water they use through filtration systems, settling ponds and other equipment. This water is returned to the city, which operates the treatment facilities funded by Intel and redistributes it for irrigation and other non-potable uses.

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

To build its future factories, Intel will need approximately 5,000 skilled construction workers over three years.

They have a lot to do. The excavation of the foundations is expected to remove 890,000 cubic meters of dirt, transported at the speed of a dump truck per minute, said Dan Doron, head of construction at Intel.

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

Some construction cranes are so large that it takes more than 100 trucks to carry the parts to assemble them, said Mr. Doron. The cranes will lift, among other things, 55-ton refrigerators for the new factories.

Patrick Gelsinger, who became Intel’s chief executive a year ago, is pushing Congress to offer grants for fabulous construction and tax credits for equipment investment. To manage Intel’s spending risk, it plans to focus on building fabulous “shells” that can be equipped with equipment to respond to market changes.

To address the shortage of chips, Mr. Gelsinger will have to comply with its plan to produce chips designed by other companies. But a single company can only do so much; Products such as phones and cars require components from many vendors as well as older chips. And no country can be alone in semiconductors either. While the boost in domestic manufacturing may reduce supply risks somewhat, the chip industry will continue to rely on a complex global network of companies for raw materials, production equipment, design software, talent and specialized manufacturing. .

Produced by Alana Celli

New Technology Era

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