Semiconductor Production 101

Contenders In The PC Business: AMD Vs. Intel

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which was founded in 1969, is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., while Intel Corp., founded only a year earlier, is located a few miles away, in Santa Clara, Calif. AMD runs two processor manufacturing facilities, one in Austin, TX, and the second one in Dresden, Germany. A third is close to completion. In addition, AMD has teamed up with IBM for processor technology development and manufacturing. Yet, it is only a fraction of Intel's size, as the market leader runs almost 20 fabs at nine locations. Roughly half of them can be used for microprocessor production. So, whenever you compare AMD and Intel, keep in mind that you're comparing David to Goliath.

Intel has the advantage of having vast production capacities, and it runs the most advanced production processes from a structure size standpoint. It has been able to shrink its production processes to smaller structures about a year ahead of AMD. This allows the firm to add a lot of transistors on large caches. AMD, in contrast, has to optimize its production process as much as it can to catch up with Intel, and to supply competing processors. While the processor designs and architecture are very different, the manufacturing processes are based on the same fundamentals - although there still are many differences.

Microprocessor Production

Microprocessor production consists of two major steps: The first one is the wafer fabrication, which AMD and Intel perform in their fabs. It includes the creation of conductive properties on the wafer. The second part is the wafer test, assembly and processor packaging. The last step is typically performed at cheaper locations. As you look at Intel processors you will find the assembly locations are in Costa Rica, Malaysia, Philippines, etc.

Both AMD and Intel try to address as many parts of the market with the least number of silicon products as possible. Intel's Core 2 Duo processor family is a perfect example: There are three processor code names: Merom for mobile processors, Conroe for the desktop version and Woodcrest for server CPUs. All three share a technical basis, which allows the firm to control the output at a late production step. Features can be enabled or disabled and the current clock speed level should give Intel excellent yields. If many mobile processors are required, Intel can focus on outputting Socket 479 models. If there is increased demand for the desktop models, it will test, validate and package for Socket 775, while server processors go into Socket 771. Even the current quad-core processors are created this way, as two dual-core dies installed into one processor package make for the quad cores.

Production In Short

Chip making basically is all about applying thin layers with very specific patterns onto silicon wafers. It all starts with creating an insulating layer, which acts as an electrical gate. A photoresist is then applied on top, and non-wanted sections are removed with high-intensity light or energy sources through masks. As the exposed areas are removed, some of the silicon dioxide underneath it is revealed, which is removed by a process called etching. Then the photoresist is removed, which leaves a certain silicon pattern. Additional lithography steps apply various layers with different materials until the desired three-dimensional structure is completed. Each layer can also be doped with materials or ions that alter the electrical properties. Windows to each layer are created in each step to create interconnects by applying metal.

After the wafer production process, the relatively thick wafers have to be made considerably thinner, so they can be cut into individual processor dies. Comprehensive testing is performed to analyze the quality of each production step. Electrical probes are used to energize and test each die on the wafer. Finally, the wafer is cut into individual dies and non-functional ones are disposed. Depending on the capabilities, each die becomes a certain processor and is fit into a certain package, which protects it and allows easy installation of the CPU into a motherboard. All functional units undergo intensive stress tests.