How They’re Made

Where breakthroughs are made.

From the world’s most advanced manufacturing comes the world’s most advanced technology—where cutting-edge techniques, equipment, and analysis are controlled with atomic-level precision.


Tomorrow’s technology begins in a fab

Technically speaking, a semiconductor fab (short for fabrication plant) is a manufacturing facility where microchips are made. But it’s actually the most breathtaking symphony of coordinated production imaginable—with thousands of process machines running plasmas, lasers, ultra-precision optics, ion accelerators, and advanced robotics—all synchronized to crank out hundreds of thousands of wafers, each containing hundreds, even thousands, of chips.

Taking center stage in a fab is the clean room—with the emphasis on clean—since a single microscopic particle the size of a virus can ruin a microcircuit.


$15–20 BILLION1

Cost of a leading-edge fab by 2020


Silicon wafers: the indispensable foundation of all semiconductors

Silicon wafers are ultra-thin discs of pure, single-crystal, polished silicon that serve as the foundation microchips are built on. Every wafer is built from stacks of the thinnest films imaginable—each patterned to form transistors and microcircuits before being cut into individual computer chips.

Because electrical currents are much easier to control when passed through silicon than other materials, these wafers are vital to the function of chips, where the need for speed is of the essence. Yes, silicon may be the second-most common element on Earth (after oxygen), but it’s an uncommonly important substance.


Who knew manufacturing could actually be inspiring?

Until you’ve put on a “bunny suit,” passed through an “air shower” to remove any extraneous particles, and walked inside a fab, it’s hard to imagine just how complicated it is to make microchips. It means packing hundreds, millions, or billions of transistors onto a fingernail-sized area of silicon wafer using some of the world’s most sophisticated (and expensive) instruments.

Each step in the process happens at a microscopic level, building three-dimensional structures that can include up to 90 layers of complex circuitry.



How much more sterile a clean room can be compared to a hospital operating room

Making the perfect chip:
a process built on precision


The first step in creating semiconductor microcircuits is depositing conductors and insulators onto a silicon wafer. It’s done in many ultra-thin layers—each of which is 500x smaller than the diameter of a red blood cell.


Working at a nano scale, highly intricate patterns of transistors are placed onto the wafer surface using a process called photolithography. The areas where connections will be made are removed by etching, which selectively removes materials from the wafer surface.


Depending on what job the chip will perform, the material deposited onto a silicon wafer is either a conductor such as tungsten, aluminum, and copper, or an insulator, including various forms of silicon dioxide, silicon nitride, and others.


Even with the purity of the clean room, every single processor has to be measured and inspected to make sure its half-billion components contain no defects. One dust particle across a single line of microcircuit, and a chip can go from hero to zero.


The steps involved in creating protective structures around a microchip and connections to a circuit board are known as “packaging.” This process has seen huge advances in recent years, propelled by the drive for smaller and more powerful chips.                                                    

“It’s like how I imagined heaven would be…but with even more robots. ”


1 EE Times, 2012
2 OR Today, 2012