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 giant, ultra-clean floors of factory rooms that can be seven floors and run along four football fields.
Microchips are in many ways the lifeblood of today’s economy. They power computers, smartphones, cars, appliances and dozens of other electronics. But global demand for them has risen since the pandemic, which has also disrupted the supply chain, leading to a global shortage.
This, in turn, fuels inflation and raises concerns that the United States is becoming overly dependent on overseas-produced chips. The United States accounts for only about 12 percent of the world’s semiconductor production capacity; more than 90 percent of the most advanced chips come from Taiwan.
Intel, a Silicon Valley titan seeking to regain its long-standing leadership in chip technology, is betting $ 20 billion that it can help alleviate chip shortages. He is building two factories at his chipmaking complex in Chandler, Arizona, which will take three years to complete, and recently announced plans for a potentially larger expansion with new facilities in New Albany, Ohio, and Magdeburg, Germany.
Why does making millions of these small components mean building – and spending – so much? A look at Intel’s manufacturing plants in Chandler and Hillsborough, Halo, provides some answers.
What do chips do?
Chips or integrated circuits began to replace bulky individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of these small components are made on a piece of silicon and are connected to work together. The resulting chips store data, amplify radio signals and perform other operations; Intel is known for a variety called microprocessors that perform most of the computing functions of a computer.
Intel has managed to shrink the transistors of its microprocessors to staggering proportions. But rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company could make even smaller components, a major reason Apple chose to make chips for its latest iPhones.
Such victories by a Taiwan-based company, an island China claims to be its own, add to signs of a growing technological gap that could put advances in computing, consumer devices and military hardware at risk from both China’s and its ambitions. from natural threats in Taiwan, such as earthquakes and droughts. And he highlighted Intel’s efforts to regain technology leadership.
How to make chips
Chip manufacturers are packing more and more transistors on each piece of silicon, which is why technology is doing more every year. This is also the reason that 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 of money to develop the complex stages of processing used to make chipboard-sized silicon wafer chips – which is why factories are called “factories”.
Huge machines design chip designs in each plate and then deposit and etch layers of materials to create their own transistors and connect them. Up to 25 plates move between these systems at a time in special capsules on automated overhead tracks.
Waffle processing takes thousands of steps and up to two months. TSMC has set the pace of production in recent years by operating “gigafactory” sites with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, vice president of market research firm TechInsights, estimates that each site can handle more than 100,000 waffles a month. It estimates the capacity of Intel’s two planned $ 10 billion facilities in Arizona at approximately 40,000 plates per month each.
How to pack chips
After processing, the wafer is cut into individual chips. They are tested and packaged in plastic packaging to connect them to boards or parts of a system.
This step has become a new battlefield because it is harder to make transistors even smaller. Companies now stack multiple chips or place them side by side in a bundle, connecting them to act as a single piece of silicon.
When packing a handful of chips together is routine, Intel has developed an advanced product that uses new technology to package a remarkable 47 individual chips, including some manufactured by TSMC and other companies, as well as those manufactured at Intel’s plants.
What makes chip factories different
Intel chips typically sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. In March, Intel launched its fastest desktop microprocessor, for example, at a starting price of $ 739. A piece of dust invisible to the human eye can ruin it. So factories need to be cleaner than the hospital operating room and need sophisticated systems to filter the air and regulate temperature and humidity.
Fabs should also be impervious to almost any vibration that can cause expensive equipment to malfunction. So superbly clean rooms are built on huge concrete slabs on special shock absorbers.
Also crucial is the ability to move huge amounts of liquids and gases. The highest level of Intel’s factories, which are about 70 feet high, have giant fans that help circulate air to the clean room just below. Under the clean room there are thousands of pumps, transformers, power cabinets, utility pipes and coolers that connect to the production machines.
The need for water
Fabs are water intensive operations. This is because water is needed to clean the waffles at many stages of the production process.
Intel’s two Chandler sites collect a total of about 11 million gallons of water a day from the local company. The future expansion of Intel will require significantly more, a seeming challenge for a drought-stricken state like Arizona, which has reduced the distribution of water to farmers. But agriculture actually consumes much more water than the chips plant.
Intel says its Chandler facilities, which rely on supplies from 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 sent back to the city, which manages Intel-funded treatment plants and redistributes it for irrigation and other non-drinking purposes.
Intel hopes to help increase water supply in Arizona and other states by 2030 by working with environmental groups and others on projects that save and restore water to local communities.
How factories are built
To build its future factories, Intel will need approximately 5,000 skilled construction workers in three years.
They have a lot of work to do. Digging the foundations is expected to remove 890,000 cubic yards of dirt carried away at the rate of one dump truck per minute, said Dan Doron, Intel’s chief construction officer.
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 in the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Some construction cranes are so large that more than 100 trucks are needed to bring the parts to assemble them, Mr Doron said. The cranes will lift, among other things, 55-ton coolers for the new plants.
Patrick Gelsinger, who became Intel’s chief executive a year ago, is lobbying Congress to provide factory construction grants and equipment investment tax credits. To manage Intel’s cost risk, he plans to focus on building great “shells” that can be equipped with equipment to respond to market changes.
To deal with the shortage of chips, Mr. Gelsinger will have to fulfill his plan to produce chips designed by other companies. But a company can only do so; Products such as phones and cars require components from many suppliers, as well as older chips. And no country can stand alone in semiconductors. Although stimulating local production may reduce supply risks to some extent, the chip industry will continue to rely on a complex global network of companies for raw materials, manufacturing equipment, design software, talent, and specialized manufacturing.
Made by Alana Cheli