Inside Intel's D1D fab -- through the looking glass

Visitors given fleeting glimpse of Intel's most important chip-making facility

The closest Intel will let reporters or analysts get to its primary manufacturing research facility, known as D1D, is the hallway outside the fab floor within its Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro, Oregon.

From behind a window, visitors were allowed a fleeting glimpse of perhaps the most important chip-making facility in Intel's stable of factories. As might be expected, there's not much that can be seen from such a limited perspective. But facility managers shared a few details about the facility, where Intel makes sure its advanced manufacturing technologies are working flawlessly before moving them to fabs around the world.

Fab D1D was completed in 2003, and covers a little less than one million square feet, said Bruce Horwath, manufacturing manager for D1D. Intel is currently making processors using its new 65-nanometer processing technology within D1D, chips that are expected to be formally introduced early next year.

Silicon wafers are loaded into various chip-making tools -- some of which cost more than $10 million each -- through a complex routing system that runs on mechanized tracks above the tools. D1D uses what's known as a "ballroom" design, meaning the clean room floor is wide open, lacking walls within the facility where dirt can gather, Horwath said.

The air within the clean room is constantly refreshed and maintained at a cleanliness level known as Class 10, Horwath said. The air is even cleaner within the stackers, which transport silicon wafers from tool to tool. That air is kept at Class 1 status, meaning only three particles of dirt measuring 0.3 microns in size are allowed within a cubic foot of air. By comparison, the air in the hallway from where the clean room can be observed is off the charts, "something like Class 100,000," Horwath laughs.

Several hundred technicians work 12-hour shifts underneath the perpetual yellow-orange light bathing fab D1D. Regular white light would cloud the light-sensitive chemicals used in the manufacturing process to project the mask, or the material containing the chip's layout, onto the silicon wafer. Making a chip is almost like taking a photograph, except layers of silicon dioxide are left behind instead of an image.

Intel flies in workers from other facilities to Hillsboro to learn how technologies are rolled out within D1D, having them spend six months to a year learning how things work in Oregon before returning to their fabs to duplicate the procedure under Intel's Copy Exactly strategy, according to one Intel employee accompanying Wednesday's tour. In fact, the company is currently constructing living quarters just outside D1D for the employees that will soon be charged with rolling out Intel's 65nm manufacturing technology at fabs in Oregon and Ireland.

Photographs were not allowed within D1D. A sign placed prominently next to the entryway reminded Intel employees that they could be dismissed from their jobs for taking unauthorized pictures of D1D. Intel is so concerned about secrecy within D1D that it won't permit any outsiders to use its network for Internet access, and security guards kept a close eye on guests as they toured the facility.

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