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Suit me up!

One of my favorite parts of this job is the chance to check out manufacturing and research facilities firsthand. I have seen scores of chip fabs; process integration centers; research labs; toolmaking factories; and gas, chemical, wafer, and photomask plants in Asia, Europe, and North America. Some visits have been window tours, while others have been full-on, inside-the-cleanroom walkarounds. If given a choice though, I always tell my hosts, "Suit me up!"

Recently, I've been fortunate to see a few of the planet's best fabs. I had an extensive window tour of Intel's 200-/300-mm site in Leixlip, Ireland, in April, while in mid-May I was part of an electronics editors entourage visiting the Hudson Valley region in New York. We stopped at Philips 200-mm fab and IBM's 300-mm crown jewel, Building 323, in East Fishkill as well as the burgeoning Albany Nanotech campus a few hours' north of Big Blue. The back-to-back-to-back tours of Philips, IBM, and Albany were particularly enlightening, offering a rare glimpse of the past, present, and future of advanced chipmaking technology.

The Dutch started trading beaver pelts with the Algonquins in the area in the early 1600s, but Philips didn't take ownership of the former Micrus fab in Fishkill until 2000. The 200-mm, 180-nm-capable line can push out up to 20,000 wafers per month, said Wendy Arienzo, Philips's vivacious vp and general manager. The site, one of Philips's most profitable, runs almost like a foundry, with 500–700 process flows and some 150 different recipes for a variety of consumer application chips. Arienzo cited tens of millions of dollars of ongoing capital investment this year, adding that the Fishkill facility is the leader in RFID devices.

During our window tour, one striking observation was the minimal amount of work in process (WIP) waiting in the fab bays. WIP was said to be 2X less than the amounts calculated 10 months earlier, the result of a fabwide cultural and operational effort to achieve "continuous-flow manufacturing." Decreasing cycle times, maintaining the same output with less inventory, and ultimately reducing the cost per wafer pass are the kinds of efforts essential for older fabs like Philips Fishkill to remain competitive.

Two key generational differences between Philips's 200-mm and IBM's 300-mm factories hit you right away when you enter Building 323. While the older fab is fully SMIFed in a traditional bay-and-chase layout, there is no interbay automation system—workers must push carts of pods around the floor. When you gaze down "main street" in IBM's house, you see an open ballroom, with no separated chase areas, and robots running like a sci-fi model-train set overhead. The wafer- and reticle-bearing cars enter and exit rows of stockers on either side of the center aisle, then move over and into the various bays, cabling FOUPs onto and off of the tool front ends.

There are also fewer people on the floor in Big Blue's fab than in Philips's—certain aisles were unpopulated in B323, with the robots' constant loading and unloading of tools the only sign of intelligent life. Two exceptions to the depopulation trend were the defect inspection area and the development fab. It seems that even a state-of-the-art automatic defect classification system plugged into a fabwide network needs some human eyeballs and hands-on attention in what IBM characterizes as its "300-mm touchless transformation."

The greater number of people on the floor is not the only striking difference between the development fab and its production sibling. Rather than the rows of similar or identical tools lined up in the main manufacturing bays, the next-generation portion features single units or pairs of equipment, including examples of some of the first systems of their kind on any fab floor, such as the laser-thermal-processing unit I saw. Floor space had been set aside for a 193-nm immersion scanner, although only the track system had also been installed so far. By locating the two fabs under the same roof, IBM hopes to "seamlessly transfer" its technology from development into manufacturing and accelerate its ramp to yield on advanced devices.

Next issue I will continue my facility report, with some thoughts on Albany Nanotech and the exceedingly small-featured, big-monied future of semiconductor R&D and manufacturing.

Tom Cheyney

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