Microchips are, in multiple ways, the lifeblood of the modern economy. They power computers, mobiles, cars, appliances, and other electronics.
But the world’s directive for them has swelled since the pandemic, which also generated supply-chain disruptions, resulting in an international shortage.
Some feature more than 50 billion microscopic transistors that are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are created on gigantic, ultraclean factory room floors that can be seven stories tall and run the measurement of four football fields.
That, in turn, is fueling inflation and increasing alarms in the United States that the nation is becoming too conditional on chips made abroad. The U.S. accounts for about 12% of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity; more than 90% of the most state-of-the-art chips come from Taiwan.
Intel, a Silicon Valley titan seeking to restore its longtime lead in chip manufacturing technology, is creating a $20 billion bet that it can help ease the chip shortfall. It is building two factories at its chipmaking complex in Chandler, Arizona, that will bear three years to complete. Recently announced plans for a potentially more considerable expansion, with new sites in Ohio, New Albany, and Magdeburg, Germany.
Why does producing millions of these tiny components mean building — and spending — so big? Inside Intel production works in Chandler and Hillsboro, Oregon, a look delivers some answers.
Chips, or ICs, began to substitute bulky individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of those tiny components are built on a piece of silicon and related to working together. The resulting chips store data, boost radio signals and perform other operations; Intel is recognized for a variety called microprocessors, which conduct most of the calculating functions of a computer.
Intel has handled to shrink transistors on its microprocessors to mind-bending dimensions. But the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. can meet even tinier components, which is why Apple is determined to make the chips for its latest iPhones.
Such victories by a company based in Taiwan, an island China asserts as its own, add to signs of a growing technology gap. It could put advances in computing, consumer devices, and military hardware at risk from China’s ambitions and natural threats in Taiwan like earthquakes and drought. And it has set a spotlight on Intel’s efforts to recapture the technology lead.
Chipmakers are filling more and more transistors onto every piece of silicon, which is why technology does more each year. But unfortunately, it’s also why new chip factories cost billions, and fewer businesses can afford to build them.
In addition to paying for structures and machinery, companies must disburse heavily to develop the complex processing steps used to forge chips from plate-size silicon wafers — which is why the factories are called “fabs.”
Enormous machines project strategies for chips across each wafer and then deposit and etch away layers of materials to complete their transistors and connect them—up to 25 wafers at a time activity among those systems in unique pods on automated overhead channels.
Processing a wafer takes many steps and up to two months. TSMC has set the rate for output in recent years, working “gigafabs,” sites with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, the vice-chair of market-research firm TechInsights, estimated that each site could process more than 100,000 wafers a month. He assessed the capacity of Intel’s two planned $10 billion installations in Arizona at approximately 40,000 wafers a month each.