FOUP! There it is

FISHKILL, N.Y. — You have to listen carefully to make it out, the song that chimes like a cell phone over and over throughout IBM‘s almost-finished US$2.5 billion chip manufacturing facility: it’s “”The First Noel.””

The music can come

from above, below, or at eye-level, depending on where the FOUPs are. Short for front opening unified pod, FOUPs zoom across tracks that line the ceilings of this 140,000 square foot space, looking like little space ships. Each FOUP contains up to 25 of the 300 millimetre wafers IBM uses to make chips. As they travel from one machine to another, cables raise or lower the FOUPs so that they can be cleaned, cut or otherwise processed. Though they have already been working on prototype chips here since last week, some construction is still taking place, and the music is intended to warn those on ladders or otherwise unaware of a FOUP’s approach.

The FOUPs are designed to be an improvement over traditional chip manufacturing plants, where wafers were carried by hand in what were called “”boats in boxes.”” Now human intervention is minimized; there is little physical handling of the materials while in production, and most staff is focused on monitoring or maintaining equipment. Michael Grazioso, an IBM employee who conducted one of the first tours of the facility earlier this week, said the increased automation has significantly reduced the number of people needed at the plant. “”I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s a lot less,”” he said. “”Less than half.””

The inside of chip manufacturing plants are called “”clean rooms,”” because they are kept air-tight and as free from dirt and dust as possible so as not to damage the delicate process of semiconductor production. Employees inside these plants often wear the “”bunny suits”” made famous by Intel TV commercials. At IBM’s plant, the automation means staff can get away with a hair net instead of the usual Stormtrooper-style helmet. “”We don’t even really need this kind of protection,”” Grazioso said, “”but we think it’s a good idea to have people put these on to kind of psychologically reinforce the importance of how we behave in the clean room.””

The Fishkill facility is the first IBM location in the world where chips will be cut from 300 mm wafers instead of the usual 200 mm size. Grazioso said the additional silicon allows the fabrication plant (or “”fab””) to be more productive, making about 2.5 times more chips per wafer and potentially reducing cost per chip by up to 30 per cent.

“”We made a conscious decision not to be the first ones to implement this level of automation and to move to this process,”” he said, noting that TCMC and Motorola have already opened 300 mm facilities of their own. “”We wanted to take a ‘close follower’ approach and make sure we were ready.””

IBM has sectioned off one portion of the plant for a Semiconductor Research and Development Center that will work on copper wiring, silicon-on-insulator-based transistors and improved (“”low-k dielectric””) insulation. The lion’s share of the building, which once housed an IBM 200 mm facility in the 1980s, will handle manufacturing.

Bijan Davari, IBM’s vice-president of technology and emerging products, said chips produced at the plant will be used in computers, servers and a host of other consumer electronic devices including cell phones (Qualcomm is an IBM customer), personal digital assistants and video game systems for clients like Nintendo. Sometimes IBM helps co-design the chips. In other cases it provides foundry services — Cytrix, for example, used IBM to make its chips for about five years.

Davari said one of the most difficult decisions a company like IBM makes is a move to a new material set to make chips, whether it be from silicon to copper or from copper to silicon on insulator. That’s because even as new elements like copper can help enhance performance, they can present scaling problems.

“”When you move to manufacturing, you have to have the infrastructure already built,”” he said. “”You’re really betting the company each time.””

Once all of the 600 tools are installed and full production is underway, Grazioso said the plant will be able to handle 525 wafer starts a day in the manufacturing division and 60 in the development area. Completion of the wafers processes will depend on the product. These will primarily include ASICs and logic, but not DRAM, he added.

IBM hopes to have the facility running at full speed by early next year, at which point it will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for Christmas Day. The local government says IBM’s facility represents the largest private-sector investment in New York State history and the nation’s largest since 1995. It will create approximately 1,000 new permanent jobs at the Hudson Valley Research Park in East Fishkill, Duchess County.

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