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Intel makes The Register sweat III

Part III: Inside the clean room at Fab 11

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Executives at the Intel Corporation took The Register for a bunny-suited tour of Fab 11 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and made us sweat. But more on perspiration later. Intel did not put us under a geas (NDA) in our tour around the clean room but we weren't allowed to loiter and forbidden to stray outside of the yellow lines into the chases. Gowning Up We were told the night before that when we showered in the morning, we had to wash off all traces of scented soap and perfume. Women or men are not allowed to wear make-up or fragrances of any kind. We were told that we needed to wear leather or man-made leather (what that?) shoes, and comfortable clothes, such as a tee-shirt and jeans. Before entering the gowning room itself, we put on hair nets and plastic covers for our shoes. The gowning room itself is a miracle that even the best regulated laundries would envy. Everything is done in well regulated stages. First of all, you have to drink water at a fountain to rid your mouth of "human particulates". The next step is to put on a face mask which goes over your nose if you've any kind of whiskers sprouting. Next, you put on a pair of nylon gloves, and get your bunny suit outfit, booties and cowl. The cowl goes on first, then the bunny suit proper. the booties go over the legs of the suit and are strapped tightly, then zips on your shoulders are zipped up. Finally, you have to wear another pair of gloves, this time disposable plastic ones. Not everyone in the clean room wears the bunny helmets, which are reserved for those working close up to the wafers. The suits themselves cost around $700 and are made of a special material which lets nothing out. Inside, it's very hot. Around half of the 5,000 employees in Albuquerque work in the clean rooms, so there are massive arrays of bunny suits and lockers everywhere. Fab 11 works 24 hours a day, 365/366 days a year, with staff working 12 hour shifts with three breaks. New employees tend to start on the night shifts, but can apply to work days as vacancies come up. It's a four day week, with three days off, or a three day week, with four days off. Many of the suits are patched, because of small accidents with spillages or tears. With each suit costing $700 or so, that's pretty inevitable. When suits have become too patched, they are used for maintenance engineers in special areas and the like. At this point, the suits start to acquire coloured patches. Otherwise they are white. Inside the bunny suit, it's no fun, it's hot and it's unpleasant. If you're claustrophobic, you ain't gonna like to be an Intel bunny. The whole process of gowning up takes between five and 10 minutes, but one Intel engineer told us that on his first morning there, with no-one to guide him, he took around 40 or 50 minutes. If anyone comes on shift with a case of coryza, they're not allowed to gown up. But if you have an occasional sneeze, you have to bend over close to the floor to sneeze, so that none of the particles will damage the wafers. Clean Room The part of Fab 11 we visited is massive, with the distance between one corner and the other around a kilometre. It is arranged in corridors, and alternating bays and chases. The bay is where the processing is done, while the chases are isolated from the bays because that is where much of the machinery that drives the different process, and which generates particulates, are located. Some bays appear to be fully automated while others need human intervention. For example, we saw one bay where wafers were being picked up by robots and alternately plunged into different chemicals and then washed in "ultra pure" water where human beings were working. In another bay, we saw the same process, but this time with the wafers protected behind steel doors, using brand new Hitachi robotic systems. If fabs move to 300mm (12-inch wafers), most processes will need to be fully automated because of their fragility. Wafer boxes are controlled by an automated software system which moves them around the clean room on a monorail system to wherever they are required. This system runs through the corridors above the heads of the workers. The air system blows from ceiling to floor, from where the air is ducted, cleaned and re-cycled. Intel claims that the environment of the clean room is over 10,000 times than that in an operating theatre. The whole clean room is slightly pressurised. And what of romance? According to one lady engineer, people tend to recognise shapes of others in bunny suits and it's hard to recognise co-workers outside of the clean room, unless you just look at their eyes. This is bunny suit purdah. ®

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