Chipmaker Intel passes a significant internal milestone this week when its Irish Fab Operations (IFO) produces its one billionth microchip after 12 years in operation. It is only the second Intel site globally to have reached this major milestone (after New Mexico in the US).
The achievement underscores Intel’s position as one of Ireland’s leading multinational investors, notwithstanding the Government’s recent decision to withdraw grant aid for its latest plant due to pressure from the European Commission. Since 1989, Intel and the Irish Government have invested €5bn in the Leixlip operation.
The IFO facility produced its first microprocessor in spring 1993. At that stage it was known as Fab 10 and it manufactured Pentium processors for the desktop market. In 1998, Fab 10 and Fab 14 merged to form IFO and moved from producing mainly chips for desktop PCs to making products for a wide range of applications. It now manufactures chipsets, embedded controllers and routers for the desktop, mobile and server markets, handheld computing devices and the network and communications area.
IFO is based on 200mm-wafer technology, as opposed to the latest 300mm technology that is used in Fab 24 (that came on stream in May 2004) as well as Fab 24-2 (due to become operational in the first half of 2006). In all, IFO produces 65 individual products, three times the number of any other Intel 200mm facility worldwide. Moreover Leixlip’s IFO facility is the only Intel site globally to deploy two process technologies (P854 and P856), which are used to manufacture network processors and routers.
Joe McDonnell, IFO factory manager, believes the high number of products and processes being run at IFO are a testimony to the success of the plant. “We have been able to demonstrate the ability to introduce and run leading-edge technologies at IFO and bring new skills on board,” he remarks.
Some US$2bn was invested in IFO between 1993 and 1998. In the past two years a further US$200m has been invested in building cleanrooms for the production of Flash memory chips. The investment has ensured that Intel has been able to keep up with demand for these microchips, which are used the store the applications software on an array of mobile devices from handheld computers and mobile phones to digital cameras.
IFO also produces a significant proportion of chipsets for the Centrino processor, one of Intel’s most successful products ever. Centrino and the growing adoption of 3G smart phones will continue to drive production at IFO, according to McDonnell, who notes that production levels are already sky-high. “We’re pretty much fully loaded at this point in time.”
Microprocessor production is a highly complex operation involving some 300 separate processes over a four to six-week period. It involves putting hundreds of millions of transistors — essentially on/off switches — on a layer of silicon wafer. The way these transistors are connected together will determine what application the chip is to be used for. The work is all done on a microscopic, even an atomic level, McDonnell explains. “If you think of the Empire State Building there are probably hundreds of miles of cable running up and down the building, powering all the different applications. Microprocessor production is like taking the Empire State Building and shrinking it down to size of a thumbnail,” he says.
The technology is improving all the time. Fab 24 and Fab 24-2 together represent the next generation of Intel technology. The construction of Fab 24-2 is to go ahead despite the Government’s decision earlier this year to withdraw state aid from the project. The move was prompted by the European Commission’s decision to open a formal investigation into Ireland’s grant aid policy, which could take up to 18 months to complete, and clear indications from the commission that the aid would not be approved at the end of that process. At present Intel employs more than 5,000 people in its Irish operation.
Fab 24-2 will be the company’s first facility to run 65-nanometre technology, which will be used to make products such as the dual-core computer chips, the next generation of semiconductors that combines two chips on a single piece of silicon. Intel and arch-rival AMD are both expected to launch such two-in-one chips in the coming months.
McDonnell acknowledges over time more Intel technology will move from a 200mm to a 300mm production platform but this does not mean that 200mm operations will be wound up any time soon.
“From an IFO perspective we see a long future ahead for 200mm operations. After all, we still have a 150mm factory running in Israel.”
McDonnell believes that the success of IFO — as demonstrated by its breaking the one billion barrier — is important not only for Intel’s Irish workforce but for the wider economy.
“The key point from Ireland’s point of view is that the success of IFO was a key enabler for attracting the 300mm [Fab 24] investment. We were able to build confidence within the corporation around our ability to deliver. There is no way the company would have invested if they didn’t have confidence in us.”
By Brian Skelly