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Ultimate Control: RFID-Enabled Manufacturing

At its semiconductor plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., IBM has used RFID to completely automate the manufacturing of advanced microchips from 300-millimeter silicon wafers. The high-tech facility optimizes production, speeds up product development and improves customer service.
By Mark Roberti
Dec 01, 2005—East Fishkill, a town of 26,000 people located 70 miles due north of New York City, is laced with two-lane roads dotted with small homes, a couple of churches and a community center. The biggest news in the town last year was that the local 14-and-under roller hockey team won the National USA Inline Championship. Few would suspect that this unassuming town in the lower Hudson Valley is home to one of the world's most advanced manufacturing facilities.

IBM's East Fishkill semiconductor fabrication facility, or fab, is a 1,027-acre campus with more than 60 buildings. Building B323 looks indistinguishable from the others, but it's actually unique. That's where IBM turns silicon wafers with a diameter of 300 millimeters, the latest standard in the intensely competitive semiconductor market, into microchips for cell phones, video game consoles and other high-tech products. It had been home to a 125-millimeter wafer fab, but the company closed that facility in the early 1990s when demand for these wafers dried up. The 140,000-square-foot plant underwent a complete renovation costing $2.5 billion before it went operational in mid-2002.

Attention to detail is critical, as the smallest defect can render a portion of the wafer unusable.

The semiconductor industry has moved from 125 millimeters to 200 millimeters and now to 300 millimeters. The larger-diameter wafers yield more chips. IBM's East Fishkill fab produces hundreds of millions of customized micro-chips annually from 300-millimeter wafers.

As wafer sizes increased, the manufacturing process became more complex. A blank wafer might undergo more than 600 process steps—doping, lithography, etching, implanting, polishing and so on—before being cut into microchips. The process is also extremely demanding. The smallest defect can render a portion of the wafer unusable. And a step that is missed or performed out of order can destroy a wafer. Wafers are typically processed in batches of 25, and each wafer can yield up to 2,000 chips. Each chip has a street value of roughly $50, so a mistake on a single batch can result in the loss of $2.5 million in product.

Given the high value of the 300-millimeter wafers, the company knew it had to completely automate the manufacturing process to achieve a greater level of control (other chip makers were moving in the same direction). IBM wanted to control every new wafer-making process developed, so that when the desired result was achieved, the process would be immediately repeatable. The firm wanted to control every aspect of production, to eliminate the potential for human error. It wanted to control the movement of every wafer, so that when production priorities were modified, the fab could respond immediately. And IBM wanted to control every aspect of change, so when a process change affected a wafer, the plant could immediately create a new plan for the remaining processes needed to complete them.

In IBM's state-of-the-art plant, the company uses an overhead monorail system to move the FOUPs.

The underlying technology that gives IBM ultimate control over every aspect of manufacturing is radio frequency identification. It enables the company to fine-tune production to achieve the highest yield possible. It speeds up the process of developing new products for its customers, and it gives customers the ability to see the status of their microchips within the plant.

The facility can operate 24/7 and produce more chips per year with 30 percent fewer people than older fabs (the plant once kept running when it was evacuated because of a snowstorm). But reducing staff was not the main reason for moving to the highly automated system, since employee costs are a small component of the overall cost of operating silicon fabs. Instead, the aim was to better control the production process to reduce human error and make every process repeatable.
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