Taiwan Semiconductor Manufac-turing Co's (TSMC, 台積電) is moving forward with the hottest technology and proving why it is the number one semiconductor "foundry" in the world, with over 50 percent market share in this business. A semiconductor foundry manufactures microchips to the specifications of design firms, who paint a picture of the "perfect" chip, then ask TSMC to actually make it.
One of the factors that has separated TSMC from the rest of the pack is how fast it moves up the ladder to new manufacturing process technologies. Since last year, the firm has been engaged in the use of two new technologies at the same time, 12-inch silicon wafers, upon which semiconductor transistors are carved at a microscopic 0.13 microns. The "old" technology is 8-inch silicon wafers and 0.18 micron technology.
The new 12-inch wafer Fab is in the Tainan Science-Based Industrial Park (台南科學園區), and as Charles Hung (洪錦輝), the program manager on the new line puts it, some of the changes that need to be made in the manufacturing line are giving him a "a very big headache."
"In the past, we increased the wafer size in small leaps, from 3-inch to 4-inch, 5-inch, 6-inch, then from 6-inch to 8-inch. But this time, the jump is really big, from 8 to 12. It is a ridiculous jump, so there are a lot of challenges," said Hung.
The company agreed to dress this reporter up in "clean room fatigues" and offer a tour of the new Fab -- "no photographs, please" -- and a chance to learn how to make a semiconductor from a 12-inch silicon wafer.
Semiconductors are made on round, flat pieces of silicon, currently the size and shape of a round dinner plate (12-inches). Why these plates are called silicon "wafers" is a mystery. Large, round plates that look like steel and feel about as heavy -- there is nothing wafer-like about them to the touch.
Since microchips are square -- each 12-inch wafer has hundreds of thousands of square semiconductors carved onto its surface before the wafer is sent to another company for cutting and packaging, the obvious first question was: "Why is a silicon wafer round when microchips are square?"
"That's the way silicon is made," explained Hung.
Silicon wafers are produced by crystallizing highly purified silicon in a cylinder-shaped container. Afterwards, the tube-shaped silicon is sliced like bread, and polished. These slices, called wafers, are cut to a precise thickness and are uniformly flat.
"Another advantage of [12-inch] wafers is the size ... because it is bigger so the curve is closer to a square," said Hung, "So it is more efficient."
A typical microchip is about the size of your fingernail and, nearly invisible to the human eye, millions of transistors and diodes dot its surface. The transistors and diodes are arranged in precise patterns and are joined together by layers of interconnecting metal. The design of the chip determines its function and how fast it will process electronic signals.
To get on to the manufacturing floor of the 12-inch facility, all employees start at the clean room, where they don uniforms for the day, a full white suit, boots and mask that cover every part of the body except the eyes. Then employees walk across a long, sticky black mat to clean off the bottoms of their boots.
And the tidiness doesn't stop there. To make sure the chips are clean throughout the process each silicon wafer is loaded into a clear, see-through box, called a pod, with 25 wafers in each. This pod is used to transport the wafers through the entire manufacturing process, protecting them from any stray dust or particles as it passes through each stage. Once the pod is attached to a new machine, a robotic arm inside the machine handles each wafer, eliminating human touch all together.