Cooking up the perfect chip

Constructing a microchip factory involves protecting it against the vibration of a footstep and ensuring it is dust-free; tall orders when you are building in a desert.

Building a factory in the desert is relatively easy. Building a microchip factory in the desert is another story. Protecting instruments from dust and cushioning the plant against the slightest vibrations are just two of the extreme design challenges facing Abu Dhabi when it builds it own microchip factory in the next four years.
After the Abu Dhabi-owned Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC) bought a 65 per cent stake in the chip maker Globalfoundries last March, plans to build a computer chip foundry - or "fab" in industry terms - have begun to take shape. "Semiconductor manufacturing is as sophisticated as high tech can get," says Ibrahim Ajami, the chief executive of ATIC. "How do you go from where we are today to bringing one of the most sophisticated industry in the world tomorrow?
"We have to start thinking about that and 2010 is going to be a pivotal year on us executing on that." Enter the M+W Group. The Austrian engineering firm has built every one of Globalfoundries' microchip foundries, including the US$4.2 billion (Dh15.42bn) facility being built in Malta, New York. Industry experts say that a foundry built in Abu Dhabi will cost about the same as the New York facility.
M+W Group opened an office in Abu Dhabi in November to begin bidding for contracts to assist in the development of the computer chip factory, in the UAE's plans to build a nuclear facility, and in the Masdar City project. Although the company has not formally won a contract for the Abu Dhabi foundry, it is in talks with Mubadala Development, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi Government, to build it.
"Building a fab here has certainly got some challenges compared to the rest of the world," says Stephen Newman, the general manager of M+W Group's Abu Dhabi office. "There's unusual challenges and it is a complex engineering feat, like it is in New York that we're building for Globalfoundries now. But for us, it's an achievable challenge." Foundries cover more than 18,500 square metres and are usually designed to have the chip production processes carried out on a single floor.
The right humidity, temperature and air quality are paramount to ensuring that the microchips will not be contaminated. An initial design usually takes between six and 12 months to complete. The first step is to find the right location for a foundry, which is a complicated process. Careful seismic analysis has to be done to make sure that the chip-making process is not interrupted by earth tremors or heavy motor traffic. Even vibrations from footsteps have to be taken into account.
"There's a design process that we go through that the wafers and the manufacturing plate is segregated from the rest of the building," Mr Newman says. Construction workers have to be extra careful. Once the "clean room", or the area in which silicon wafers are handled and processed, is ready to be built, workers will have to put on special uniforms to make sure the area is not contaminated with sand or particles of dust. Even one microparticle could ruin a circuit.
The foundry could also become a prototype design for future models as the M+W Group is already thinking about incorporating green technology into the Abu Dhabi plant, such as using solar energy for water cooling. "These green technologies will all be taken into account when building a chip foundry here," says Manfred Engelhard, the energy technology manager for M+W Group. "It's proven technology but it has never been integrated in a foundry before."
Given the harsh desert heat Abu Dhabi experiences, designing desalination treatment plants, dust scrubbers and airconditioning vents will all have to be considered carefully. "It's a highly stressed environment," Mr Newman says. "There's a lot of decisions have to be taken with a very fast response time." Once a general framework is approved, building the chip factory begins before the design is actually completed, he says.
"The overall build is very fast," Mr Newman says. "One of the key requirements is time to market. Once companies made the decision to spend capital and have a business plan put together, they want to get the revenue out of that very quickly. Technology changes very quickly and speed is of the essence." But just building a microchip factory will not be enough for the UAE's high-tech hopes, analysts say.
"To build up a fab, you will need to first build up the country's logistic infrastructure, the supporting supply chains, as well as grooming and finding ways to attract the skilled workforce," says Tan Kay Yang, a principal analyst with the semiconductor-making team at Gartner. "Now there is definitely no denial about ATIC's commitment and deep pockets, but it would still not be easy to build a fab in the middle of a desert."
Arguably, the first of Mr Tau's requirements is already met with Jebel Ali providing a world-class logistical infrastructure. Supply chain support will certainly be clearer once the foundry is under development, while educational initiatives are being discussed to teach Emiratis to take part in building semiconductor chips. Already, the Dubai Silicon Oasis free zone operates a microchip design course in conjunction with the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has already entered a partnership with Abu Dhabi's Masdar renewable energy city, is exploring its options in working in Abu Dhabi in additional sectors. Waleed al Muhairi, the chairman of ATIC, recently said that by 2030, the local chip-making industry would have as many as 40,000 employees. "We have the next four years before we start building a fab," says Mr Ajami. "We're not going to sit still. There's a lot of Abu Dhabi Government entities and committees are all now co-ordinating together to develop this high-tech ecosystem in Abu Dhabi." True to form, the M+W Group engineers are still tinkering with ideas. "You know, we could even build it on an artificial island like the Palm Jumeirah," Mr Newman told his team in a eureka moment. "We haven't thought about that yet. Let's put it down on paper and see what we can do about that."
US Last year's revenues: US$109.4 billion (Dh401.82bn) Led by Intel, Qualcomm and AMD, the US semiconductor market is the largest in the world. The country pioneered the semiconductor foundry concept in the 1960s and led innovation for decades until rivals in Asia caught up. But the sector has suffered over the past year as the car electronics industry's business declined 26.1 per cent. Japan Market: $50.7bn Toshiba, Sony and Renesas Technology are the big hitters, making the Japanese market one of the largest in the world. But a decline in consumer electronics sales left Sony at the bottom of the Top 10 suppliers, with its revenue set to decline by 32.8 per cent this year. Asia-Pacific Market: $43.3bn The region is largely led by Taiwanese firms United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which solely make microchips, while South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Hynix Semiconductor design and package them. Business at foundries such as UMC and TSMC rose by 53.7 per cent to $5.6bn in the fourth quarter of last year compared with the same period in 2008, as more chip designers outsourced production. Overall, semiconductor companies in Asia are expected to see their combined revenue grow by 0.3 per cent. Europe/Middle East Market: $23.2bn STMicroelectronics in France and Infineon Technologies in Germany are the main players, accounting for almost three quarters of the region's semiconductor industry revenues. European companies were the hardest hit last year as the car, industrial and consumer semiconductor industries declined. Shipments of semiconductors to Europe are estimated to fall by 20.8 per cent. Companies in Europe are expected to suffer a total drop in revenue of 24.2 per cent this year.