From wafer to processor: We visited the factories of Intel – Frandroid

Intel is using the launch of Meteor Lake, its new generation of high-end laptop processors, to show us how it converts wafers into processors at its factories in Malaysia.

From wafer to processor We visited the factories of IntelPhoto credit: Romain Heuillard

For the first time since opening 50 years ago, Intel recently invited the press to tour its assembly plants in Malaysia, where wafers are turned into processors.

Intel occasionally opens its wafer production facilities, where chips are etched onto silicon wafers. But it just announced Meteor Lake, its first mass-produced heterogeneous processor. A Meteor Lake processor is actually made up of several chips assembled together, some of which are made by another founder, TSMC. After decades of exclusively internal production, Intel also wants to manufacture for other customers.

In this context, “packaging” (assembly) takes on great importance, which explains why the company invited media from all over the world, including Frandroid, to see how it happens with their own eyes. While we waited to hopefully tour a manufacturing facility, we visited the assembly plants in Penang and Kulim.

First foreign factory

Intel currently operates ten locations around the world and will have twelve in the future, but Malaysia has the distinction of being the American founder’s first overseas location. In 1972, the company, like its rival AMD, chose Penang as the location to build its first factory, which would assemble the Intel 8008, one of the first microprocessors in history. Penang quickly became a stronghold for the semiconductor industry.

AK Opening Keynote - Intel Malaysia - 3 AK Opening Keynote - Intel Malaysia - 6

Even though the country has an authoritarian regime, Malaysia had and still has several advantages over other Southeast Asian countries from the perspective of a multinational corporation primarily attracted by economic work. Malaysia was a British colony until 1957 and is largely English-speaking. It also trains many engineers. And Penang state in particular has a deep-water port that is essential for shipping production.

After 51 years, while the company is still building new factories there, including its largest clean room, Intel Malaysia employs 15,000 people across four sites and 16 buildings. We visited some of them.

Rabbit jumpsuit

After a day dedicated to Meteor Lake in the conference center of an international hotel, we spent two long days on tours (signposted) of the Intel factories in Penang and Kulim (45 minutes away by car).

1696193913 918 From wafer to processor We visited the factories of IntelThe European delegation partly in a “bunny costume”. Photo credit: Intel

The buildings house offices and, above all, huge “clean rooms”, i.e. white rooms with strict access conditions. In some areas we wear a bunny suit that completely covers the skin and clothing. The overshoes (with anti-static strap), full suit, gloves, mask, goggles and hood leave only a few square centimeters of skin exposed. The dress code even stipulates that you must tie your hair with a synthetic elastic band rather than cotton, which could shed fibers.

Employees can enter with their smartphone, but due to a lack of cleanroom-certified notebooks, we cannot bring anything with them. The photos come from the Intel photographers who accompanied us.

The visit can begin!

Die Sorting and Die Preparation (DSDP)

At its Malaysian factories, Intel receives wafers from its factories in the United States (Oregon, Arizona, Ohio), Ireland, Israel and soon Germany and converts them into finished products that can be delivered to computer manufacturers through various distribution channels or directly to consumers .

The wafers are thin silicon wafers, in this case 300 mm in diameter, on which billions of transistors from dozens of microprocessors are lithographically printed, here on a scale of around 7 nanometers.

The singing

The first step is therefore to separate the microprocessors by cutting the wafers at the Die Sort & Die Preparation factory in Kulim. The wafers are first placed on a carrier made of a plastic film, which loses its adhesion when exposed to UV radiation. That’s why the area is illuminated yellow, without UV.

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The wafers go through a laser engraving machine that delineates the dozens of dies, and immediately after that a die singulation machine (individualization of the chips), in which two small circular saws with diamond blades cut the wafer, but not the plastic film, at an astonishing speed given the micrometric precision. Water jets ensure cooling and removal of residues. In another machine, the film is exposed to UV light to lose its adhesion, while a robotic arm uses pneumatic suction to grab each chip and deposit it on another surface.

Until now, media was transported manually from machine to machine.

The variety

However, in the next area the light is white and autonomous vehicles transport the media between mechanized storage units and the test cells.

Tools measuring just a few square centimeters in size are guided into huge modules, each consisting of 20 test cells weighing around 500 kg each. These modules follow one another almost as far as the eye can see and their number is kept secret.

Intel_Tech_Tour_Malaysia-AGV

A removable card, which Intel makes at its neighboring factory, allows each cell to be adapted to the chips being tested. For Meteor Lake, the maps have a kind of base made up of about 2,000 needles that are thinner than a human hair. There the chips are subjected to low-level electrical tests, which we timed to around 30 seconds.

Defective chips are thrown away and the others are packed into rolls before being taken to the Penang Assembly and Test (PGAT) factory.

Assembly and testing

As the name suggests, chips are assembled and tested in the Assembly and Test Factory in Penang.

Assembly

This is where the matrices get their final form, commonly referred to as a “processor”. Each chip is first attached to the substrate, this green circuit board that connects the chip to the computer’s motherboard via the socket. To do this, they go through a machine that perfectly aligns several thousand microscopic solder balls and then fuses them using a thermocompression process at 300 °C.

Intel_Tech_Tour_Malaysia-PGAT_27

To solidify the whole thing, we first inject epoxy resin to use capillary action to fill the remaining air between the matrix and the substrate. Then, if it is a so-called desktop processor, a thermal interface material is applied to the die and an integrated heat spreader is glued to the board. If it is a so-called mobile processor, we simply glue a metal frame, a so-called stiffener, onto the board.

Physically speaking, we then have what the average person calls a “processor”. However, we don’t yet know exactly which processor model it is.

Testing and binning

In fact, semiconductor manufacturing processes are so microscopic as to be imperfect. Although all chips are printed on the same wafer using the same lithographic mask, in practice the results are not completely identical.

Once assembled, the processors are therefore subjected to a new series of tests at a higher level, which allows not only to verify their proper functioning but, above all, to sort them out. This is called binning.

Intel Tech Tour Malaysia - Test 2 Intel Tech Tour Malaysia - Test 1

The processors go through high-density burn-in testers in parallel, which test the proper functioning of the various subcomponents (CPU, GPU, etc.), as well as the tolerances at different frequencies, electrical voltages and temperatures of each copy. Processors from the same wafer or production batch can thus become different models. Depending on the range, certain examples may be a Core 5 or a Core 7, an F-series whose defective GPU has been disabled, an unrestricted K-series, etc.

After sorting, the processors finally go through the platform performance verification phase, where they are tested in near-real-world conditions. That is, on platforms (motherboards) and with operating systems (Windows, Linux), workloads and (virtual) devices similar to those of end users.

In the event of a failure, certain processors undergo more detailed diagnostics, which is the subject of a dedicated article, not to repair them, but to identify and correct a possible design flaw.

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Deliveries end of 2023/beginning of 2024

Processors that have passed all tests can move on to the very final phase, which we have not seen yet, to be packaged and delivered to customers, either computer manufacturers (OEMs) or directly to end users.

In the case of Meteor Lake, a new generation of high-end laptop processors, Intel is likely shipping the first batches to computer makers. The commercial launch is scheduled for December 14, 2023, then we will learn the details about the processor models that will be called Core Ultra and certainly about the first laptops to adopt them. In the meantime, factories will continue to produce thousands of processors around the clock.

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