Inside IBM's 300mm chip fab: Photos

Inside IBM's 300mm chip fab: Photos

Summary: IBM's 300mm chip fab in upstate New York turns out high-performance chips around the clock. ZDNet was invited to take a look inside, and learn about what the future holds for chip making.


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  • Seventy miles north of New York City, in the heart of the Hudson Valley, lies IBM's vast East Fishkill site.

    Opened in 1963, the site has grown to encompass 46 buildings over 885 acres, which IBM now shares with nine other companies. Up to 6,000 IBMers work here, 1,000 of them in the site's 300mm chip fab, which opened in 2002.

    The site works "to provide the server team, both z and p, early access to technology, and to work together to customise that technology," fab operations director John Arthur says. The fab also produces chips for companies such as Cisco, Microsoft, ST Ericsson, Qualcomm and Samsung, and has a sideline in producing silicon for games consoles: the chips for the Nintendo Wii U system are made here, for example.

    To enter the fab floor, employees have to pass through a clean room, where they put on hair nets, latex gloves and body suits - only their eyes are left exposed. No photos are permitted inside the $6bn facility, so all pictures here are provided by IBM.

    The big blue (no pun intended) machines above are stockers, which hold the wafers until they're ready to move along the line and be processed.

  • Above, IBM employee Mary Westermann inspects one of the fab's 300mm silicon wafers.

    The East Fishkill fab turns out the company's 32nm Power7 chips. Such is their complexity, they require 1,200 separate steps to make, and have a yield of around 50-60 percent, according to Arthur. "The size and complexity of the chip generally dictates the yield," he explains. "A smaller chip with less function will yield higher, a more complex chip with more function will generally yield less. Some of our OEM chips have yields that are in the 90s."

    Arthur is heading up the project to build the next generation of Power chips, Power8, which are still in the very early stages of design. "The chip designers use mainframes to design these things. We're building chips so we can make the machines so we can design the next generation of chips," he says.

  • Preventing contamination on the fab floor is paramount, hence the workers' suits. Handling of the wafers is done by cubed robots such as the one above, which move around on tracks attached to the ceiling. They ferry stacks of wafers in batches of 25 from stockers to machines where the circuitry is printed, before transferring them to other parts of the fab for quality testing. With an older chipset such as the Power7, now two years old, only about three wafers of each set of 25 are tested for imperfections, Arthur says. With a newer chip design, a higher number would be examined.

    There are around 350 tool operators on the fab floor, though their job is to test and check tools rather than operate them. They are joined by nearly 500 workers employed by IBM's partners, such as Samsung, Global Foundries and ST Micro, who have access to the fab and can work on the tools supplied by their companies.

    Alongside IBM Research in nearby Yorktown, much of the fab's work here is focused on developing high-performance chips.

    Arthur says the fab is unusual in having production and development share the same facility. "That's rare in the industry. The plus of it is, if you work together, you can save capital equipment, because you're sharing it. The negative is, if you're sharing it, you fight about who gets it," he says, adding that balancing the needs of the two is one of the biggest challenges of his job.

Topics: Processors, Hardware, IBM, Servers

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  • Changes since 1986

    I hosted an A/NZ tour of East Fishkill in 1986. We were the last to see the wafer line where you could actually see the wafers moving through the process on air beds. They were also using angled micro photography to check the solder join points between circuits for chip quality control. Some failed chips were recovered by point-to-point wires and used for down-graded roles.
  • 300mm

    I guess i'm missing something as current chips are being made at say 32nanometres. 3 metre chips are just too big ?
  • nvm

    ok, looked it up, its a 300mm wafer (30cm not 3m also lol)