How Intel is making semiconductors in a global shortage

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 floors of factory premises that can be seven floors high and four football fields long.

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

This, in turn, raises inflation and raises the alarm that the United States is becoming too dependent on chips made abroad. The United States accounts for only about 12 percent of global 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 manufacturing technology, is betting $ 20 billion that it can help reduce chip shortages. He is building two factories at his 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 in Germany.

Why does making millions of these tiny components mean building – and spending – so much? A look at Intel’s manufacturing facilities in Chandler and Hillsborough, Ore., Provides some answers.

Chips, or integrated circuits, began to replace bulky single-transistors in the late 1950s. Many of these tiny components are produced on a piece of silicon and connected to work together. The resulting chips store data, amplify radio signals and perform other operations; Intel is known for a series called microprocessors, which perform most of the computing functions of computers.

Intel has managed to reduce the transistors on its microprocessors to staggering sizes. But rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company can make even smaller components, which is the key reason why Apple chose it to make chips for its latest iPhones.

Such victories by the Taiwan-based company, which China considers its own, add signs of a growing technology gap that could jeopardize advances in computing, consumer devices and military hardware due to China’s ambitions and natural threats to Taiwan, such as earthquakes and droughts. And he focused on Intel’s efforts to regain technological leadership.

Chip manufacturers are putting more and more transistors on each piece of silicon, which is why technology is doing more and more every year. This is also the reason why new chip factories cost billions and as few companies as possible can afford to build them.

In addition to paying for buildings and machinery, companies have to spend a lot on developing complex processing steps used to make chipboard-sized silicone chip chips – which is why factories are called “factories”.

Huge machines project chip designs over each plate, then deposit and incise layers of material to create their own transistors and connect them. Up to 25 wafers move between these systems at once in special floors on automated overhead rails.

Waffle processing takes thousands of steps and up to two months. TSMC has set the pace of production in recent years, managing gigafabs, locations with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, vice president of market research firm TechInsights, estimates that each location can process more than 100,000 waffles a month. He estimates the capacity of Intel’s two planned $ 10 billion plants in Arizona at approximately 40,000 wafers per month each.

After processing, the wafer is cut into individual chips. They are tested and wrapped in plastic packaging to connect to panels or parts of the system.

This step has become a new battlefield, as it is more difficult to make even smaller transistors. Companies now stack multiple chips or stack them side by side in a package, connecting them to act as one piece of silicon.

Where packing a few chips is now routine, Intel has developed an advanced product that uses new technology to connect an outstanding 47 individual chips, including some manufactured by TSMC and other companies, as well as those manufactured at Intel’s factories.

Intel chips usually sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. Intel released its fastest microprocessor for desktop computers in March, for example, at a starting price of $ 739. A piece of dust invisible to the human eye can destroy it. Therefore, factories must be cleaner than the hospital operating room and need complex systems for air filtration and temperature and humidity regulation.

Fabs must also be resistant to almost any vibration, which can cause expensive equipment to malfunction. So fantastically clean rooms are built on huge concrete slabs on special shock absorbers.

The ability to move large amounts of liquids and gases is also critical. The highest level of Intel’s factories, which are about 70 feet high, have huge fans that help circulate air into the clean room directly below. Beneath the clean room are thousands of pumps, transformers, power cabinets, utility pipes and refrigeration devices that connect to production machines.

Fabs are operations that require a large amount of water. This is because water is needed to clean waffles in many phases of the production process.

Intel’s two Chandler locations together draw about 11 million gallons of water a day from a local company. Intel’s future expansion will require significantly more, a seemingly challenge for a drought-stricken state like Arizona, which has reduced water supplies to farmers. But agriculture actually consumes much more water than the chips plant.

Intel says its Chandler locations, which rely on three-river supplies and a well system, recover about 82 percent of the fresh water they use through filtration systems, sediment ponds and other equipment. That water is sent back to the city, which manages Intel-funded treatment plants and redeploys it for irrigation and other non-drinking 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 renew water for local communities.

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

They have a lot of work to do. Excavation of the foundation is expected to remove 890,000 cubic yards of dirt being transported at a speed of one 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 parts to assemble them, Mr. Doron said. The cranes will, among other things, raise 55-ton refrigeration units for new factories.

Patrick Gelsinger, who became Intel’s CEO a year ago, is lobbying Congress to provide factory-building grants and equipment investment tax credits. To manage Intel’s consumption risk, he plans to highlight the construction of 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 for the production of chips designed by other companies. But one company can only do so much; products like phones and cars require components from many vendors as well as older chips. And no country can stand alone in semiconductors. Although strengthening domestic 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.

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