Wafer Madness

Twenty-four hours a day at Motorola’s MOS 11 factory outside Austin, workers race to build the complex computer chips that power our brave new world. For two weeks, I was one of them.

Speed counts for everything in the roaring semiconductor business, and Motorola’s chip fabrication plant known as MOS 11 operates around the clock. Work only ceases on Christmas Day or during an emergency. Otherwise, in the plant’s ultrasterile “clean room,” where miniature electronic circuits are built layer by layer on top of silicon wafers, the lights are never turned off and the rows of giant machines are always running. MOS 11 was designed to build the most complex types of microchips, including the PowerPC microprocessor, which serves as the “brain” of the latest generation of Apple computers, and keeping the factory going at top velocity is a logistical juggling act. Before I spent time inside the factory, I had assumed it would run as smoothly as a Swiss watch. In fact, the elaborate machinery used to build the chips’ delicate circuitry needs constant adjusting, and the factory functions more like an orchestra cursed with unusually temperamental instruments, so that the musicians perpetually have to stop and tune while the orchestra is performing.

Built in 1991 at a cost of $1.5 billion, MOS 11 was the first factory in the world to build chips on wafers that are eight inches in diameter—before then, the largest wafers were only six inches across—and it was the first factory to operate a class-one clean room for commercial production, which is three thousand times cleaner than the average hospital operating room. Several other chip factories run by rival companies are scattered throughout the Austin area, which has become known as Silicon Hills; MOS 11 is southwest of the city, behind an office complex that Motorola built off U.S. 290. It takes several years to get a chip factory to run at full capacity, and while MOS 11 has already achieved a production pace that puts it among the world’s top factories, its managers struggle daily to get more good chips from each batch of wafers. (Each wafer yields from several hundred to several thousand chips, depending on the size of the chips being built.) A bewildering number of things can go wrong; as chips have shrunk, they have become more powerful and more efficient, and now a single chip has millions of transistors, diodes, and capacitors crowded into a space the size of a fingernail. The smallest components that MOS 11 builds are about half a micron wide; a strand of human hair, by comparison, is about seventy microns wide. Thus, a dust particle falls on the fragile components with the force of a giant boulder.

Throughout MOS 11, red digital clocks display the hour and minute of the day in military time—a reminder that even if the work never ceases, time is always passing, and the factory is never making enough chips to satisfy the insatiable demand. Over the past decade, the semiconductor industry has expanded fivefold, invigorating the country’s atrophying manufacturing sector and lifting the stock market to new heights. Chips are now found in washing machines, coffee makers, smoke alarms, and answering machines, where they perform invisible miracles of automation. Even though they govern so much of modern life, most people are barely aware of how chips are made; our imaginations are steeped in images of Detroit’s assembly lines or Pittsburgh’s steelmaking furnaces, but the interior of a chip factory is unfamiliar. The new factories are not like the old ones; they are incredibly clean, automated, very efficient, and non-union. The new factories are run by managers who preach teamwork to get employees to devote themselves to the well-being of the factory. There is something eerie about the commitment that an institution such as Motorola requires of its workers—it is like a cult or the military. But the company is also a powerful force in the lives of its employees. It lifts them out of the circumstances they were in, often giving them more responsibility and more money than they ever expected to have. Many of the one thousand people who work in MOS 11 feel that the factory has given them a future. For two weeks in January, I sat in on daily meetings held by MOS 11’s managers to see how they run the factory, and spent time on the factory floor with former equipment operators to see how chips are made and what it is like to work on the modern assembly line.

Bunny Suits

AT 7:30 A.M., MOS 11 EMPLOYEES ON THE FIRST SHIFT STREAM through the front doors of the brown brick building. (“MOS” stands for “metal oxide semiconductor.”) At the same time, weary, dazed-looking people who have finished working the graveyard shift begin to leave. At 8:30 a.m., the factory’s managers gather in a conference room on the second floor to review the previous shifts and try to make sure the place runs smoothly during the next 24 hours. One morning, Steve Brown, the supervisor of the factory’s first shift, sketched what had happened the day before. “Yesterday the WIP was 31,559,” Brown told the other managers, referring to the “work in process,” or the number of wafers going through the factory. “And we did 63,130 turns.” In other words, every wafer had moved through an average of two steps in the assembly process—the industry’s equivalent of breakneck speed. Brown described problems that were likely to impede the flow of wafers through the factory that day: Two fifths of the factory’s low-temperature furnaces weren’t working; one of the machines that check the dimensions of circuits was down; four fifths of the machines that perform a crucial process in an area called etch were out of commission; and an unwieldy bulge of wafers was converging in an area known as diffusion. “A lot of inventory has slammed into there recently,” warned Brown. But MOS 11’s managers cultivate a macho, matter-of-fact presumption that problems will be solved, so nobody seemed alarmed. “No real major issues are expected,” Brown concluded. “We should have a pretty good day.”

After the meeting was over, I went up to the factory floor with

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