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Urgency Felt Around Finding Chip Fab Construction Talent

Friday, February 2, 2024

Identifying and securing tradespeople who can handle the intricate needs of chip fab construction is something that needs more attention and thought, Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation, a nonprofit arm of SEMI that focuses on workforce development programs, told EE Times in an exclusive interview. Her comments reiterated what other experts told EE Times in July—when Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) also said a construction snag forced it to delay the expected start of production in Arizona by as much as a year, to sometime in 2025.

SEMI is collaborating with Arizona State University to develop construction worker apprenticeships and identify the needed competencies, Liss said.

“We were so focused on the industry itself and how to run the fabs and how to get those workers in there.”

She said many organizations from across Arizona have shown significant interest in partnering with SEMI to address the state’s workforce needs. In addition, the Maricopa Community College District, Arizona State University and AZ are also interested in building and developing partnerships to advance apprenticeships to address the needs for technicians and operators, within the state and industry.

“We have worked with member companies to establish competencies for roles needed within the fabs,” Liss said.

SEMI has also submitted a proposal to the Arizona Commerce Authority to establish registered apprenticeships within the state. “Once resources are put into place to support development of that work, I believe the ecosystem can move quite quickly to establish programs,” she said.

Establishing these registered apprenticeship programs would take about a year, and they would run between 18 and 24 months, Liss said. “There’s interest, engagement and need across many companies in Arizona.”

But the construction piece of the puzzle has been bubbling up in almost every conversation she’s had in recent months, she added. “We’re just trying to wrap our heads around what that means in terms of [academic] programs.”

The construction bottleneck is likely to complicate goals the United States has to quickly onshore semiconductor manufacturing.

Liss estimated 18 significant fab projects in the U.S. are being built right now but none has so far received CHIPS Act funding, as the CHIPS Program Office hasn’t yet awarded funding on major projects. She said the SEMI Worldwide Fab Forecast report expects these new fabs to go online in the U.S. by 2026, with six of them expected to start operation this year.

How chip fabrication plants stand out

Semiconductor cleanrooms require great care and cleanliness measures to create contamination-free, particle-free manufacturing environments.

Beneath those cleanrooms, there are multi-story basement sub-fabs that contain sophisticated chemical management and water purification systems.

The space above and even rooftops are used for air handling and abatement systems.

All this means chip fab construction workers need specialized skills and training to build fabs and install the associated utilities, Liss said.

Jim Handy, principal analyst with Objective Analysis, recalled his days working in the mid-1980s at IDT’s brand new fab in Salinas, and hearing about construction issues the fab faced because it wasn’t in Silicon Valley, he told EE Times in an exclusive interview.

While Walmart may use some of the same construction techniques, Handy said there are numerous elements of a fab that are far more sophisticated.

“Fabs tend to be built on a cushion to absorb shock from earthquakes or other earth-transmitted shocks,” he said. “This isn’t done in most tilt-ups.”

Union rules may present complications

When IDT built the Salinas fab, Handy said union rules required them to use local plumbers. “The locals weren’t trained to do the intricate plumbing in a wafer fab, so IDT had to pay to train the locals up in Silicon Valley,” he said.

In a fab, climate control and air filtration are the same thing, Handy said. They’re also very expensive compared with the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems used in a retailing building or even in a hospital, which aims to reduce airborne pathogens.

Other unique requirements for a chip fab include recovery systems for lost helium, Handy said, which is done by shielding the helium’s piping with an outer layer of larger piping that sucks out any helium that escaped.

There are also emergency shut-off systems in case gases like silane, which ignite upon contact with air, leak from a pipe break, he said. “These aren’t things that most plumbers have to deal with.”

Most fabs use redundant electrical supplies, Handy added. “Most communities don’t have electricians who know how to handle that,” he said. “If there aren’t internet data centers or other fabs nearby, then chances are that you’ll have to import talent to set up the electrical system.”

Regional relationships critical

If having regional expertise across construction trades is critical to building fabs, then SkyWater Technology is in good shape.

Paul Sura, the company’s EVP of technology and manufacturing operations, doesn’t see the availability of skilled construction workers to build fabs as a challenge where it operates, he said in an exclusive interview with EE Times.

“The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is a very large metropolitan area that is constantly expanding, and it is rich with small, medium and large construction firms,” he said. “We also have good, longstanding relationships with the local subcontractor trades and have had no issues successfully completing projects on time and on budget.”

SkyWater is monitoring semiconductor specialty trades that aren’t typically abundant in the area, he said, but at this point, these haven’t impacted SkyWater’s construction or equipment installation projects.

Sura said the two specialty trades that’re critical for fab build and equipment installation are high-purity piping and knowledge of cleanroom protocols.

In a semiconductor cleanroom, air is purified down to “class 10,” which means 10 particles of 0.5um size per cubic foot of air, he noted, while hospitals focus on bacteria, not necessarily particles, so a typical hospital room is class 100,000.

“To achieve class 10, we need more stringent filtration and more air volume movement,” Sura said. “The high standards required in semiconductor clean rooms drive much higher expectations and education in the construction industry.”

The chip fabrication process also demands control of temperature and humidity to very tight specs, such as +/-1.5F and humidity +/-3%, with closed loop feedback controls in many places to maintain these levels, he said. Water is filtered, de-ionized and de-oxygenated to a very highly purified level, as well—many more times than standard household usage, he added.

Because semiconductor fabs are a high-value building, they’re built to higher standards than a typical office building to better weather earthquake and hurricanes, Sura said. Semiconductor fab sites generally operate 24 hours per day, 365 days a year with no planned shutdowns. He said this means SkyWater must have multiple redundancies in all its facilities and processing systems.

Right now, there are adequate construction resources available to SkyWater for its project plans, Sura said. “As large projects kick off in the U.S., the availability of these skills may become scarce, so we plan to monitor over time.”

By: DocMemory
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