From sand to silicon – Intel’s Irish success story

It is not every day one has the opportunity to explore the inner-workings of an international technology enterprise and witness, first hand, the intricate processes and procedures that combine to create product.

A typical scenario within Intel's FAB operation. (Image: Intel)

So when the global manufacturer of motherboard chipsets, integrated circuits, embedded microprocessors and flash memory, Intel Corporation, offered a site visit to its semi-conductor wafer fabrication facilities inIreland- IT News Africa responded immediately.

Intel’s FAB 24 and FAB24-2, which operate as FAB24, manufacturing facility in Leixlip, County Kildare, was opened in 2004 and is a key part of the company’s extensive operation in the country. It also has a research facility based in Shannon, County Clare.

In 2009 the company marked the 20th year of operation inIreland. The FAB operations are focused on research, development and manufacturing, including that of silicon wafer technology.

This technology is used to help produce transistor components that form part of the chipset technology integrated into mobile and digital lifestyle devices.

Intel’s Irish story is one of success, beginning with modest assembly operations in the late 80’s to the emergence of an internationally recognised technology enterprise focused on opportunities in Digital Health, Silicon development, IT innovation, solutions for education and research in nano science.

The company has achieved a number of milestones:-

  • In 1989 Intel selectedIrelandas its European manufacturing and technology headquarters and commenced construction of the original PC motherboards and systems factory (ESSM) at Leixlip.
  • In 1994 Fab 10 Factory officially opened and production of the Pentium processor ramped.
  • In March 2002 Ireland Fab Operations introduced 0.13 micron flash memory technology – a $200 million investment.
  • In April 2005 Ireland Fab Operations manufactures 1 billionth microprocessor
  • In May 2011 the company announced that it would place a radically new transistor design into volume production, called tri-gate transistor technology.

    A bird's eye view of Intel's FAB operation. (Image: Intel)

The territory has served the company well and is considered one of Intel’s flagship sites.

Eamonn Sinnott, Vice President and General Manager, Intel Ireland, said the region offers up a number of advantages for Intel including attractive financial and tax incentives, it forms part of the European Union, there is access to a skilled workforce and ongoing capital investment opportunities.

Intel employs approximately 4 000 people at its Irish operation, covering a number of silos including design, sales, marketing and research.

Mass collaboration, digital transformation and sustainability have been identified as the mega-trends to be exploited, as they continue to impact on machine-to-machine, person-to-machine and person-to-person interaction.

The manufacturing process

Fabrication is the term used to describe the process of making computer chips.

When the company first started with chip production, it used 2-inch-diameter wafers. Today, 12-inch or 300-millimeter wafers are primarily used.

Larger wafers are more difficult to process, but the result is lower cost chip.

Intel uses a photolithographic ‘printing’ process to construct a chip, layer by layer.

Layers are deposited across the wafer and then removed in small areas to develop transistors and interconnects.

These form the active part of the chip’s circuitry as well as the connections between them.

A few interesting points about the business:

  • Compared to Intel’s first microprocessor, the 4004, Intel’s current 32nm CPU runs almost 5000 times faster and each transistor uses about 5000 times less energy. In the same period, the price of a transistor has dropped by a factor of about 50,000.
  • A particle-free atmosphere is critical to the laboratory environment. According to company representatives at the FAB24, there are certain areas within the laboratory that are one thousand times more sterile that a general surgery.
  • The original transistor built by Bell Labs in 1947 was large enough that it was pieced together by hand. By contrast, more than 100 million 22nm tri-gate transistors could fit onto the head of a pin.
  • According to executive management at IntelIrelandthere has been more foreign capital investment in that country than in all the countries making up the BRICS community combined.
  • Comparing the speed of the first microprocessor’s transistor with the latest generation transistors, is like comparing the speed of a snail (5 meters per hour) with the speed of the Kenyan runner Patrick Makau Musyoki in his record-breaking marathon run (42,195 meters at 2:03:38 hours or an average of 20,6 km/h last month in Berlin). The fastest processors in the world can achieve frequencies of about 4GHz. They compare to the 4004 processor like the sprinter Usain Bolt to a snail.
  • The FAB24 plant is reported to be one of three Intel Fabs identified for investment in 14-nm process technology.

Chris Tredger, Online Editor