Friday, October 16, 2015

When the Sun Rose

I'd already gotten a Globe before the first sliver of sunshine:

"Computer chip’s travels show state’s connection of global economy" by Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff

I'm sure she's keeping her job.

WILMINGTON — Here at Analog Devices, Inc., in a room 100 times cleaner than a hospital operating room, workers build the tiny computer chips that power everything from cell phones and car airbags to jet aviation systems.

The devices are the size of a grain of sand and the width of a human hair, so small that the tiniest speck of dust can corrupt the circuits etched into the silicon. Cleaning crews work 24/7 to keep the facility immaculate as humans in full-body decontamination suits work alongside industrial robots.

Analog’s Wilmington campus, which includes a chip manufacturing facility, is only a pit stop, albeit a key one, in a journey that covers tens of thousands of miles and spans at least three continents as the teeny semiconductors on which modern life depends are transformed from raw materials to high-tech devices. This journey also illustrates why a recession in Europe, a slowdown in China, or a trade pact in Asia, reverberates in Massachusetts.

Semiconductors and semiconductor machinery accounted for nearly $1.7 billion, or about 6 percent of the state’s $27 billion in exports last year. When global demand for electronics or autos or air travel slumps, or a strengthening dollar gives foreign competitors an edge by making US products more expensive, there are economic implications for the state.

“The world is all connected now,” said G. Dan Hutcheson, an economist and chief executive at VLSI Research Inc.a semiconductor industry forecasting firm based in Silicon Valley. “And it’s a rollercoaster.”

Analog Devices employs about 2,500 in Massachusetts. Its chips begin their travels in France, where miners extract quartzite, a rock formed from silicon dioxide, or silica, from which silicon is refined. The quartzite is shipped to Germany, where the refiner, Siltronic AG, a Munich company, grows pure silicon crystals that can reach as high as eight feet tall. Those silicon towers are sliced like baloney into thin, shiny wafers resembling compact discs.

“It’s perfect, there’s no defects,” said Dave Adelman, vice president of sales for North America.

The wafers arrive at Logan International Airport, and are then delivered to Analog Devices’ wafer fabrication plants in Wilmington. In Wilmington, a black box of wafers is loaded into the equipment by clean room technicians at which point robotic arms take over, gently removing the wafers and beginning the manufacturing process.

In the weeks of processing to follow, they will never be touched by human hands again. The technicians in bunny suits operate the equipment while engineers oversee the process, occasionally examining wafers under a microscopes.

The multistep processes to build a chip follows a recipe, or “flow” that can take years for engineers to develop. These processes are highly proprietary, so guarded that Ira Moskowitz, vice president and general manager of manufacturing at Analog’s US operations, declined to say how much the company spends on its energy costs per month, fearful it could tip competitors off to Analog’s methods and techniques.

Each step in the flow is complex and known by only by a handful of engineers, who each understand only a part of the overall recipe.

“No one person knows how all of it works,” said David Kress, a marketing director and MIT-educated engineer who has worked at the company 35 years. “They can know part of the process but not everything.”

A fabrication plant, or fab, is also home to some of the most elaborate manufacturing systems in the world, although the guts of the equipment is mostly out of view, behind white, clean-room walls of dials and monitors. Millions of dollars in machinery fill the first floor of two of the buildings on Analog’s 63-acre Wilmington campus, supported by elaborate underground air-filtration systems that clean microscopic particles from the air.

In a yellow lit room, engineers operate banks of machinery capable of printing circuitry patterns that are accurate to a millionth of an inch using materials that are sensitive to white light, but not to yellow. In a diffusion room, furnaces hot enough to turn rock into molten lava help change the properties of a circuit to enhance its insulation or conduction properties to conduct and guide the power as it moves through the circuits.

And separately, 10-foot steel implanters shoot ion beams of chemicals at a wafer as it spins in a vacuum, to help create even more complex conduction properties that increase computing power. A single wafer can go through any of these masking, etching, heating, or implanting processes dozens of times before it is done.

On a recent weekday, the plant produced chips for heart rate monitors, and another for a telecommunications system used on cell towers.

A finished batch of 20 wafers weighs just a few pounds, but each disk holds as many as 10,000 chips. Each wafer is individually wrapped and flown to Analog’s testing facilities in the Philippines. The testing process is also proprietary and “top secret.”

Analog, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, began testing in the Philippines in the 1980s. Ray Stata, Analog’s co-founder and chairman, said at a recent dedication of a building near Manila that the company established testing operations in the Philippines in part because many people speak English in the island nation, once a US territory.

Stata also noted the nation’s university system and growing population of students pursuing jobs in science and engineering. “ADI then, as it is today, was a culture of problem-solvers and the Philippines fit right in,” he said.

Those factors, plus labor labor costs that are a fraction of what they are in the United States or Massachusetts, make testing semiconductors 9,000 miles away in the Philippines, one of the cheapest way to get the job done, said Ken Hansen, chief executive of the Semiconductor Research Corp. in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, an industry research foundation.

Southeast Asia also is a hub of semiconductor testing, partly because of its proximity to China, a global center for electronics manufacturing and one of the largest markets for chips.

“Semiconductors rack up a lot of frequent flier miles in general,” Hansen said.

From the Philippines, the chips are packaged and shipped to manufacturers globally. Analog’s top destinations are Europe, United States, and China, where they end up in countless products, from cars, to medical equipment, to satellites.

Those products also appear to include iPhones as well. Neither Analog nor Apple Inc. would comment on this relationship, but Wall Street analysts who follow the company said Analog recently reported record quarterly sales of $863 million in large part because of the introduction of the iPhone 6s.

Company officials said no single product has helped it grow through the ups and downs of the industry and the global economy.

Kress, Analog’s marketing manager, said the company has sold hundreds of millions of chips to automakers for airbag triggers, in recent years. (None were involved in recalls.) Others developed more than a decade ago as temperature sensors remain in heavy demand.

“A few just flew by Pluto,” Kress said, referring to the NASA mission that recently visitied the planet. “And some just left the solar system.”


Related: Letting the Stars Set the Course of This Blog