IBMs Chip Plant Elevates Automation

 
 
By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2005-06-30
 
 
 
East Fishkill, N.Y.—IBM is hands-off when it comes to manufacturing its most powerful processors, including chips used by Apple Computer.

The companys chip plant here, a vital piece of IBMs strategy, employs an army of automated machines connected by hundreds of miles of cable in order to produce chips such as the PowerPC 970, known as Apple Computer Inc.s G5 processor.

The plant, officially called Building 323 on IBMs East Fishkill campus, is overseen by SiView, a Linux-based control program that runs the numerous chip manufacturing tools and robotic transporters that feed them 300mm silicon wafers. SiView gathers data from each manufacturing tool via a network of sensors connected by 600 miles of network cable.

The program, which can track individual wafers down to which rack they should rest in, issues commands telling the various manufacturing tools inside the plant which products to build and when.

The plants manufacturing floor, which some Macintosh enthusiasts might consider hallowed ground, is a giant, high-ceilinged clean room thats metallic-looking and brightly lit. It totals 140,000 square feet.

IBM has dedicated 106,000 square feet of that area to producing chips, while the remaining 34,000 square feet are used for research and development by IBM and partners.

Although it cost IBM millions more to automate the plant, which totaled between $2 billion and $3 billion to build, it was a worthwhile investment, said IBM chip-making guru Michael Passow, a senior engineering manager in the companys Systems and Technology Group. He pegged the cost of fully automating a chip plant at $100 million or more.

A key ingredient is "getting the people out of the process—because thats where you start making mistakes," he said.

Full automation makes the plant more efficient—as it can help spot potential problems earlier—and more flexible when it comes to producing multiple chips, he said. Whereas many chip plants turn out one type of processor or memory chip, IBM uses its plant to mint several different kinds of Power architecture chips, as well as other processors under contract for its customers.

Indeed, unless a chip-manufacturing tool fails, the only time a person can touch a wafer is while its being located into a clear plastic enclosure called a FOUP (front-opening unified pod) to begin its trip down the line or after that journey, which takes about a month, is complete. Otherwise, the wafer stays locked in the FOUP, if its not being worked on inside a particular machine.

During their month-or-longer trips down the manufacturing line, wafers go through numerous manufacturing steps, during which material is deposited or taken away on a microscopic level to form the various features inside each chip. While not in production, wafer-filled FOUPS are stored in giant silos located on the factory floor. The silos are served by their own high-speed, train car-like transporters.

The plant can start 525 wafers per day down its line, Passow said. Those wafers, some of which contain 1,000 chips each, are later shipped to an IBM facility in Vermont where theyre divided up and each chip is put into packages. The packages attach them to computer motherboards.

The East Fishkill chip plant, which officially opened Dec. 10, 2002, is the main source of IBM PowerPC chips. But IBM also has agreements with others, such as Chartered Semiconductor Inc., to produce its PowerPC chips. Since the IBM plant opened, it has run two, 12-hour shifts per day, each day, year-round.

The plant eventually will lose its status as sacred ground for Macintosh mavens, as Apple will switch to Intel Corp. chips starting in 2006. But IBM has gained enough business to begin expanding the plant.

Its contracts to produce video-game console processors for Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are two reasons why. Sony will use the Cell chip, designed with IBM and Toshiba Corp. in its forthcoming PlayStation 3. Microsofts future Xbox 360 will use a PowerPC chip.

Thus IBM has already begun construction on an annex that will add a 65-nm production line to the plant. Soon, it will knock down a wall connecting the two sections and begin moving in 65-nanometer chip manufacturing equipment.

IBM hopes to begin 65-nm production in the new annex next year, Passow said.

Rocket Fuel