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Wafers are most commonly referred to in the context of manufacturing CPUs, chipsets, video chips, memory, and other types of electronic integrated circuits. As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electronic components, Intel has pioneered wafer technology as part of its manufacturing effort. Other CPU manufacturers, such as AMD, also use wafer technology and compete with Intel to develop the most efficient manufacturing processes.
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An Intel fab is where wafers are made by a process of forming large cylinder bars of silicon crystal from melted silicon and slicing those bars into slivers called wafers. The wafers produced at a given fab are defined by their diameter and thickness. Because the process of creating crystals, wafers, and circuits is sensitive to contamination, these factories are produced using ultra clean construction techniques. The production areas called clean rooms have stringent air purification measures as well.
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Types of Intel wafers
When determining what kind of wafers are used at Intel to make computer chips, the company must consider the requirements of the chips and the technology required to make them. For example, the first Intel CPU chips were created using two inch silicon wafers. Because fewer chips could be created from each wafer, costs were high. As technology developed, the more profitable, newer CPUs would be manufactured with new processes at new fabs. Production of other types of chips are shifted through the older technology fabs with the oldest fabs eventually being closed or retooled. Generally, the longer Intel can operate a fab, the more profitable it becomes because the facilities are paid for, resulting in lower overhead costs.
Intel’s newest CPUs are manufactured with 200 mm and 300 mm wafers. As the diameter of the wafer increases, more circuits can be printed on each one, lowering the material cost of production because more individual processors can be made at once. Another factor that impacts manufacturing cost is the thickness of each wafer. As technology develops to make wider wafers, it also develops to make thinner wafers. This allows even more chips to be produced from the same amount of silicon. Wafer thickness is measured in nanometers (nm), with current technology producing 32 nm and 45 nm wafers.
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The future of Intel’s wafers
Expanding the size of the silicon wafer is not a simple thing to do. Technology has to develop to enable the production of crystals that are uniform across the larger diameter. Also, by necessity, new equipment has to be developed and produced to enable new manufacturing processes.
What kind of wafers are used at Intel to make computer chips in the future is defined by what new technological advances are made. Right now, the ability to produce 450 mm diameter wafers is being perfected, more than doubling the wafer's surface area. CPUs made from the new technology are expected to become available within the year.