Semiconductor chips are all around us, powering our computers, health equipment, appliances, vehicles and many other things we use on an everyday basis. We hardly ever notice them, until something goes kaput and stops working in the desired manner. Semiconductor chips also power our industries, aircrafts, ships, defense equipment and satellite systems. The current world is almost entirely dependent on semiconductor chips and yet only a few companies and countries have the expertise to design and manufacture semiconductor chips.
It makes us wonder, why semiconductor chip manufacturing is not as common as other industries even when we are heavily dependent on it. Why there appears to be a major monopoly in chip manufacturing? To answer such questions, here’s a look at why semiconductor chip manufacturing is so difficult.
Insanely small and complex – You may have heard the thing about transistors making up most of what’s there inside a chip. The more transistors a chip can accommodate in a given size, the better it is usually considered. For perspective, first generation microprocessors produced by Intel in 1971 had transistors measuring 10 millionths of a meter, or 10 microns.
As of now, microprocessor chip technology has moved into nanometers (nm), which is one-billionth of a meter. Current chip manufacturing is being done at 4nm for mass market products. In future, this will be further reduced to 2 nanometer and even 1.4 nanometer. When chip manufacturing is being done at nanometer scale, it is easy to imagine the complexities involved.
Cleanest space in the universe – Even the smallest speck of dust or other contaminants can destroy and entire batch of semiconductor chips being manufactured. It will lead to losses running into millions of dollars. This is why chip manufacturing is done in the cleanest of rooms. It is essentially an airtight environment, with fresh air pumped only through specialized filters that block even the smallest debris. Most processes are automated and there’s minimal human interference.
Atomic level manufacturing – For fitting millions of transistors in a small space, several layers of materials are deposited and polished to create highly complex 3-dimensional structures. These layers can be as thin as size of one atom. Specialized machines that use pressure, temperature and electrical and magnetic fields are used to create such tiny layers and 3D structures inside the chip. One of the most complex processes is lithography, wherein light is used to make patterns into the layers.
Huge capital investment and fast evolving technology – Billions of dollars are required to start a chip manufacturing facility. On top of that, one has to ensure that the setup remains profitable. Chip manufacturers have to keep improving their products and technologies or run the risk of becoming obsolete. Due to high capital investment, extremely tough challenges and rapidly evolving chip manufacturing technology, not many entrepreneurs dare to venture into chip manufacturing.