Inside the multibillion-dollar quest to make faster, cheaper gadgets


Inside the cleanroom

Transistors are switches that control electricity. Computers use them to create information. More transistors means more power and speed. A chip has many transistors, but each transistor controls only one part of the circuit.

Bell Labs created the first transistor in 1947. In 1952, the transistor was used in the first working electronic digital computer. By 1954, the transistor had become the most important invention in the history of electronics. Transistors are now used in everything from cell phones to computers to automobiles.

A fingernail grows at the speed of a nanosecond per year. After counting to 70 years, your thumb nail has grown to the size of a transistor. Over 100 million transistors could be made on a pin head.

A few days before arriving in New York, I visited the rural township of Malta, N. Y., just north of Albany. The drive up the mountain to reach the factory looked like the tree lined entrance to a state park. But when I got to the end of the road I saw a long, squat grey building filling the horizon. This was the new Global Foundry plant.

GlobalFoundries is an American company that produces chips for the world market. It was founded by AMD, but became a separate entity when AMD went bankrupt. Mubadala is an investment company based in Abu Dhabi. It is the investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi. It is also known as ADMOCO.

Clean rooms are used to make chips. Chips are made by using transistors. Transistors are made by using clean rooms.

Clean rooms are important because they protect people from harmful chemicals. This room is very large, and there are many machines that make chips. There are also many workers who work here. The room is lit by bright lights, and the air is filtered.

There’s constant noise. The hum of the machines stenching, drawing and cleaning mixes together with the whir of the overhead hoists transporting, or OHTs, and an army of those upside-U shaped robots, or U-bots, shuttle round containers stacked with chip wafer, or chips, -autonomously racing across tracks on ceilings and parachuting down to pickup and drop off their cargo, or cargos.

Workers must be covered from head to toe to prevent contamination. They must use an odorless deodorant, and they must wait 2 hours after smoking before entering the clean room. Protocol officers patrol the floor to make sure everyone follows these rules. When entering the clean room, you must first walk on several sticky, yellow papers to remove any dirt from your shoes. Then, you must put on two pairs of rubber gloves, a beard mask and a face mask. You must also put on a hood, a pair of glasses, a white suit and boots.

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Workers inside the factory wear masks and suits because they’re afraid of getting sick. They work hard and long hours. Their jobs are dangerous, and they need to be careful. They use computers and machines to make things. They also carry cylinders of air to help them breathe.

Mathews points down one row to the most expensive machines in a factory. He says they cost $1 billion.

Emergency manual override means you can turn off the tool if something goes wrong. You can also use this button to shut down the machine if there is an emergency.


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