Here’s What It’s Like Inside a Chip Foundry During the COVID-19 Pandemic

SkyWater and GlobalFoundries both have to run 24/7 shops despite social distancing and stressed workers

3 min read
SkyWater Technology, a semiconductor foundry in Minnesota, is operating because it has been deemed an essential business. (This photo was taken well before the COVID-19 crisis.)
SkyWater Technology, a semiconductor foundry in Minnesota, is operating because it has been deemed an essential business. (This photo was taken well before the COVID-19 crisis.)
Photo: SkyWater Technology

“Ironically, one of the safest places to be right now is in a cleanroom,” points out Thomas Sonderman, president of SkyWater Technology, in Bloomington, Minn.

Like every business, semiconductor foundries like SkyWater and GlobalFoundries have had to make some pretty radical changes to their operations in order to keep their workers safe and comply with new government mandates, but there are some challenges unique to running a 24/7 chip-making operation.

GlobalFoundries’ COVID-19 plan is basically an evolution of its response to a previous coronavirus outbreak, the 2002-3 SARS pandemic. When the company acquired Singapore-based Chartered Semiconductor in 2010, it inherited a set of fabs that had managed to produce chips through the worst of that outbreak. (According to the World Health Organization, Singapore suffered 238 SARS cases and 33 deaths.)

“During that period we established business policies, protocols, and health and safety measures to protect our team while maintaining operations,” says Ronald Sampson, GlobalFoundries’ senior vice president and general manager of U.S. fab operations. “That was a successful protocol that served as the basis for this current pandemic that we’re experiencing together now. Since that time we’ve implemented it worldwide and of course in our three U.S. factories.”

At Fab 8 in Malta, N.Y., GlobalFoundries’ most advanced 300-mm CMOS facility, that translates into a host of procedures. Some of them are common, such as working from home, forbidding travel, limiting visitors, and temperature screening. Others are more unique to the fab operation. For example, workers are split into two teams that never come into contact with each other; they aren’t in the building on the same day, and they even use separate gowning rooms to enter the cleanroom floor. Those gowning rooms are marked off in roughly 2-meter squares, and no two people are allowed to occupy the same square.

Ron SampsonRonald SampsonPhoto: GlobalFoundries

Once employees are suited up and in the clean room, they’re taking advantage of it. “It’s one of the cleanest places on earth,” says Sampson. “We’ve moved all of our operations meetings onto the factory floor itself,” instead of having physically separated team members in a conference room.

GlobalFoundries is sharing some of what makes that safety possible, too. It’s assisted healthcare facilities in New York and Vermont, where its U.S. fabs are located, with available personal protective equipment, such as face shields and masks, in addition to making cash donations to local food banks and other causes near its fabs around the world. (SkyWater is currently evaluating what the most significant needs are in its community and whether it is able to play a meaningful role in addressing them.)

SkyWater occupies a very different niche in the foundry universe than does GlobalFoundries Fab 8. It works on 200-mm wafers and invests heavily in co-developing new technology processes with its customers. In addition to manufacturing an essential microfluidic component for a coronavirus sequencing and identification system system, it’s developing 3D carbon-nanotube based chips through a $61-million DARPA program, for example.

But there are plenty of similarities with GlobalFoundries in SkyWater’s current operations, including telecommuting engineers, staggered in-person work shifts, and restricted entry for visitors. There are, of course, few visitors these days. Customers and technology development partners are meeting remotely with SkyWater’s engineers. And many chip making tools can be monitored by service companies remotely.

(Applied Materials, a major chip equipment maker, says that many customers’ tools are monitored and diagnosed remotely already. The company installs a server in the fab that allows field engineers access to the tools without having to set foot on premises.)

Thomas SondermanThomas SondermanPhoto: SkyWater Technology

With the whole world in economic upheaval, you might expect that the crisis would lead to some surprises in foundry supply chains. Both GlobalFoundries and SkyWater say they are well prepared. For SkyWater, a relatively small US-based foundry with just the one fab, the big reasons for that preparedness was the trade war between the United States and China beginning in 2018.

“If you look at the broader supply chain, we’ve been preparing for this since tariffs began,” says Sonderman. Those necessitated a deep dive into the business’s potential vulnerabilities that’s helped guide the response to the current crisis, he says.

At press time no employees of either company had tested positive for the virus. But that situation is likely to change as the virus spreads, and the companies say they will adapt. Like everybody else, “we’re finding our new normal,” says Sampson.

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3 Ways 3D Chip Tech Is Upending Computing

AMD, Graphcore, and Intel show why the industry’s leading edge is going vertical

8 min read
A stack of 3 images.  One of a chip, another is a group of chips and a single grey chip.
Intel; Graphcore; AMD

A crop of high-performance processors is showing that the new direction for continuing Moore’s Law is all about up. Each generation of processor needs to perform better than the last, and, at its most basic, that means integrating more logic onto the silicon. But there are two problems: One is that our ability to shrink transistors and the logic and memory blocks they make up is slowing down. The other is that chips have reached their size limits. Photolithography tools can pattern only an area of about 850 square millimeters, which is about the size of a top-of-the-line Nvidia GPU.

For a few years now, developers of systems-on-chips have begun to break up their ever-larger designs into smaller chiplets and link them together inside the same package to effectively increase the silicon area, among other advantages. In CPUs, these links have mostly been so-called 2.5D, where the chiplets are set beside each other and connected using short, dense interconnects. Momentum for this type of integration will likely only grow now that most of the major manufacturers have agreed on a 2.5D chiplet-to-chiplet communications standard.

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