Semiconductors are the building blocks of modern technology, powering everything from smartphones to self-driving cars. These tiny devices are made up of materials such as silicon and are used to control the flow of electricity in electronic devices.
The manufacturing process of semiconductors is a complex and highly precise process that involves a wide range of technologies and techniques. In this article, we will explore why the manufacturing process takes so much effort.
Why Is Semiconductor Manufacturing So Difficult?
The manufacturing process of semiconductors is a complex and precise process that requires a wide range of technologies and techniques. One of the main reasons it is difficult is because of the tiny size of the semiconductor devices being produced.
These devices are typically measured in micrometers or millionths of a meter, which means that even the smallest contamination or deviation from the desired specifications can have a significant impact on the performance and reliability of the device.
Another reason the manufacturing process is difficult is because of the large number of steps involved. The process typically starts with the creation of a silicon wafer, which is then subject to a complex process that includes photolithography, etching, and doping, to name a few.
Each of these steps must be performed with a high degree of accuracy and precision to ensure that the final product meets the desired specifications.
Finally, the industry is highly competitive and fast-paced, with companies constantly looking to improve their manufacturing processes and develop new technologies in order to stay ahead of the curve.
All this requires a high level of innovation and investment in research and development, making the manufacturing process complex. There are only a few select places in the world where these amazing pieces of technology are made, which has put countries like Taiwan at the center of a lot of geopolitical games.
All these factors combined make the manufacturing process of semiconductors difficult and intensive, requiring a high degree of precision, accuracy, and innovation.
The Fabrication Environment
Semiconductors are highly sensitive to dust and particles, and even the smallest amount of contamination can negatively impact the performance and reliability of the device.
Cleanrooms are crucial in semiconductor manufacturing to minimize the presence of contaminants, such as dust, particles, and other impurities, that can negatively impact the performance and reliability of semiconductor devices.
Manufacturing only happens when the specific classification of cleanrooms is identified, and their requirements are met. Such classifications determine the amount of particulate contamination present in the room, and they play a critical role in the quality of semiconductors.
In a cleanroom environment, the level of particulate contamination is controlled by a combination of air filtration systems, HEPA filters, and other methods. Strict protocols, such as gowning and decontamination procedures, are often implemented to further reduce the risk of contamination.
Exposure to contaminants can cause defects on the surface of the semiconductor, resulting in a reduced yield or even a complete loss of the wafer. The cleanroom environment is classified by the ISO 14644 standard, which defines the levels of cleanliness based on the number of particles per cubic meter of air.
The higher the level of cleanliness, the lower the number of particles. Semiconductor manufacturing typically requires a class 1 or class 10 cleanroom, meaning that there should be no more than 1 or 10 particles per cubic meter of air, respectively.
The need for cleanrooms in semiconductor manufacturing is also driven by the ongoing trend of miniaturization, where semiconductor devices are becoming smaller and smaller. As the size of the devices decreases, the risk of defects caused by contaminants also increases.
The requirement for high-quality semiconductors with minimal defects, along with the trend of miniaturization, has led to very high standards of quality control in the semiconductor industry.
Other Complexities That Make Manufacturing Difficult
It isn’t just the manufacturing environment that makes the semiconductor industry such a tough one to get into. The entire process requires a high level of skill from every party involved.
This means that every aspect that interacts with the manufacturing process, either directly or indirectly, needs to meet the highest standards. This includes workers, the environment, transportation, materials, etc. As you can imagine, all this and other factors like the ones mentioned below add to the manufacturing difficulty.
High capital investment: Semiconductor fabrication requires a significant amount of capital investment in equipment, facilities, and research and development. This can make it difficult for smaller companies or even countries to enter the market.
Moreover, the industry is constantly evolving and changing, requiring companies to invest continuously in new technologies and equipment to stay competitive. This requires an astronomical amount of funding.
Technical expertise: Semiconductor fabrication also requires a high level of technical expertise and knowledge, including expertise in materials science, chemistry, and physics. This can make it difficult for companies or countries without a strong history of research and development in these areas to enter the market. Finding workers with such skills is also difficult.
Intellectual property: Many companies and countries have invested heavily in research and development to develop new technologies and processes for semiconductor fabrication. This has led to a significant amount of proprietary technology and intellectual property, which can make it difficult for a new player to enter the market.
They would have to start from scratch, and this would put them way behind the competition, making their efforts and products obsolete.
Stringent regulations: Semiconductor fabrication is often subject to strict regulations, including environmental regulations and intellectual property laws. These regulations can make it difficult for companies or countries without a well-established regulatory framework to enter the market.
Complex supply chain: The semiconductor industry is highly dependent on a complex supply chain that includes many different parts, materials, and services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain was severely disrupted, causing a semiconductor shortage that the world is just recovering from.
Companies need to have a good understanding of the whole process and have great relationships with their suppliers and partners to be able to produce semiconductors.
Semiconductors are probably the most valuable man-made resource in the modern world. It is quite difficult to put a price on the industry as all of the world’s technology relies on it.
It is an industry that requires the highest levels of investment, research, and development, which has resulted in the concentration of these industries in specific locations in the world. There’s not a single thing in the modern world that wouldn’t exist without the semiconductor industry.