Some have more than 50 billion tiny transistors that are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are made on giant, ultra-clean factory floors that can be seven stories high and the length of four football fields.
Microchips are in many ways the lifeblood of the modern economy. They power computers, smartphones, cars, appliances and a host of other electronics. But global demand for it has soared since the pandemic, which also caused supply chain disruptions leading to a global shortage.
That, in turn, fuels inflation and raises alarms that the United States is becoming too reliant on chips made abroad. The United States accounts for only about 12 percent of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity; more than 90 percent of the most advanced chips come from Taiwan.
Intel, a Silicon Valley titan looking to restore its old lead in chip manufacturing technology, is betting $20 billion it can help reduce the chip shortage. It is building two plants at its chip manufacturing 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 tiny components mean building — and spending — is so big? A look inside Intel’s manufacturing plants in Chandler and Hillsboro, Oregon, provides some answers.
What chips do?
Chips, or integrated circuits, began to replace bulky individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of those small components are produced on a piece of silicon and connected together 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 on its microprocessors to astonishing dimensions. But rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company can make even smaller components, a major reason Apple chose to make the chips for its latest iPhones.
Such victories by a company based in Taiwan, an island China claims as its own, add to signs of a growing technology divide that could jeopardize advances in computers, consumer equipment and military hardware from both China’s ambitions and the natural threats in Taiwan such as earthquakes and droughts. And it has spotlighted Intel’s efforts to regain its technological edge.
How chips are made
Chipmakers are packing more and more transistors on every piece of silicon, which is why technology is doing more every year. It’s also 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 of money to develop the complex processing steps used to make chips from plate-sized silicon wafers – which is why the factories are called ‘fabs’.
Huge machines project designs for chips over each wafer and then deposit and etch away layers of material to make their transistors and connect them. Up to 25 wafers simultaneously move between those systems in special pods on automated overhead lines.
Processing a wafer takes thousands of steps and up to two months. TSMC has set the pace for output in recent years by operating gigafabs, sites with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, vice president of the 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 about 40,000 wafers per month each.
How are chips packaged
After processing, the wafer is cut into individual chips. These are tested and packaged in plastic packaging for connection to printed circuit boards or parts of a system.
That move has become a new battlefield, as it’s more difficult to make transistors even smaller. Companies now stack multiple chips on top of each other or package them side by side and connect them together to act as a single piece of silicon.
Where packing a handful of chips together is now routine, Intel has developed an advanced product that uses new technology to bundle a remarkable 47 individual chips, including some made by TSMC and other companies, as well as those produced in Intel plants.
What makes chip factories different?
Intel chips typically sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. Intel released its fastest microprocessor for desktop computers in March, for example, for a starting price of $739. A piece of cloth invisible to the human eye can ruin one. Factories therefore need to be cleaner than a hospital operating room and require complex systems to filter air and regulate temperature and humidity.
Fabs also need to be impervious to virtually all vibrations, which can cause costly equipment to fail. For example, fantastic cleanrooms are built on huge concrete slabs on special shock absorbers.
Also critical is its ability to move large volumes of liquids and gases. The top level of Intel’s factories, which are about 70 feet tall, have giant fans to help circulate air to the cleanroom directly below. Beneath the cleanroom are thousands of pumps, transformers, power boxes, utility lines and chillers connected to production machines.
The need for water
Fabs are water intensive operations. In many stages of the production process, water is needed to clean wafers.
Intel’s two Chandler facilities together get 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 allotment to farmers. But agriculture actually consumes much more water than a chip factory.
Intel says its Chandler sites, which rely on supplies from three rivers and a system of wells, recover about 82 percent of the freshwater they use through filtration systems, settling ponds and other equipment. That water is sent back to the city, which operates treatment plants that Intel funded, and redistributes it for irrigation and other non-potable uses.
Intel hopes to increase water supplies in Arizona and other states by 2030 by partnering 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 construction workers over three years.
They have a lot to do. Excavating the foundations is expected to remove 890,000 cubic feet of debris, which is being discharged at a rate of one dump truck per minute, said Dan Doron, Intel’s chief of construction.
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 when building the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Some construction cranes are so large that it takes more than 100 trucks to bring the pieces to assemble them, Mr Doron said. The cranes will, among other things, lift 55-tonne chillers for the new factories.
Patrick Gelsinger, who became Intel’s CEO a year ago, is lobbying Congress to provide grants for great construction and tax credits for equipment investments. To manage Intel’s spending risk, he plans to focus on building fantastic “shells” that can be equipped with equipment to respond to market changes.
To address the chip shortage, Mr. Gelsinger will have to fulfill his plan to produce chips designed by other companies. But a single company can only do so much; products like phones and cars require components from many suppliers, as well as older chips. And also in the field of semiconductors no single country can stand alone. While boosting domestic manufacturing may mitigate some supply risks, the chip industry will continue to rely on a complex global web of companies for raw materials, manufacturing equipment, design software, talent and specialty manufacturing.
Created by Alana Celii