All around us, little powerhouses called microchips keep us entertained, connected, safe, and informed. Since 1962, millions of these tiny heroes have been designed and manufactured at Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland.
Lobsters, blueberries, semiconductors? When one thinks of traditional Maine businesses, the semiconductor industry isn’t usually the first, second, or third thing that comes to mind. But it’s been nearly half a century since Fairchild Semiconductor first set up shop in South Portland. That’s two decades longer than design engineer Greg Maher has been alive.
“You look around, and you see the kids of engineers and the grandkids of engineers working at Fairchild,” he says. “My family moved up here in 1987, when my father, who was an electrical engineer, was hired. You have generations of lobstermen, and now, because the industry has been here for so long, you have generations of engineers.”
If you’ve used a cell phone lately, or done a load of laundry, or switched on a modern lightbulb, or driven a car, you’ve likely used a Fairchild product. Though some can be so small as to be nearly invisible, the microchips that are designed and manufactured in the two Fairchild buildings near the Maine Mall are ubiquitous. It’s impossible to imagine our modern world without them.
But what is a semiconductor?
At the most basic level, a semiconductor is any material that semi-conducts. Metals like copper, silver, and aluminum are conductors; materials like wood, rubber, and glass are known as insulators because electricity does not flow through them. A semiconductor is a material whose properties fall somewhere between those of a conductor and an insulator. Silicon, the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, is the most commonly available semiconductor material. Hence the area in California where the technology first developed is still called Silicon Valley.
Here’s the basic science behind microchips, or integrated circuits: A pure silicon crystal will conduct almost no electricity. But in a process called “doping,” impurities are added to the silicon in precise patterns that can greatly add to its conductivity in predictable, repeatable ways. By creating pathways where electrons can flow and gates where they cannot, designers can control the flow of current to devices inside cell phones, car engines, washers and dryers—virtually every modern convenience or electronic toy you can think of.
The scale on which this is done is tiny. Maher displays a “map” of a chip on a conference room table; it’s 500 times a chip’s actual size. While the map takes up most of the table, the finished chip will measure 1,780 by 1,600 micrometers—about the size of the capital W that begins this sentence.
Nonetheless, design engineers talk about the “allocation of real estate” on the surface of one of these microchips, and they divide up its design according to their area of expertise.
Maher’s map is the layout of a chip designed to sit behind the USB port in a cell phone. He attempts to explain in nonscientific terms what that chip will be asked to do. “A company comes to us and says they have this USB port on the side of this phone, and they would really like for whenever an accessory is attached to it, like an audio headset, to have it be detected through hardware, without using software.”
That cell phone will have a short life before it is overtaken by new technology, and thus the design cycles are also short, on the order of three months. Actually making and testing the parts takes about eight to 10 weeks.
Fairchild’s customers include some of the biggest names in electronics, and fulfilling orders can be intense. “At one point, Nokia was building 16 cell phones a second,” says Michael Dube, senior director for manufacturing and product engineering. “We had to be sure we could ship 2 million units. Delivery is very important.”
“We have a modeling group that generates models of the transistors,” Maher says. “They’re our mathematicians. If you’re, say, a sneaker designer, you have all the materials at your disposal, you work with them, you know how they bend, you know what they can tolerate. With semiconductors, the design process is virtual, based on statistics. All of the equations of electrical engineering are based on the probability that an electron will be there. Everything is built on top of this, and, in the end, this phone works.”
To get from the conceptual to the physical requires a number of steps—and an entirely separate building known throughout the company as the “Fab,” short for “fabrication.”
The Fab is the place where a latticework of microchips will be built, layer by layer, like microscopic buildings. The base material for these “buildings” is a thin, polished silicon disc either six or eight inches in diameter. This is done with a series of “masks,” which act as stencils for light to shine through in a lithography process, similar to chemical photography. Light-sensitive materials are deposited on the silicon wafer, and each mask outlines where it will and won’t be exposed to light, resulting in layers of patterns on the wafer.
Getting into the Fab is an adventure in itself. A human hair or a flake of skin can have a similar impact on the viability of a chip that a fallen tree has on the roof of a house. Consequently, everyone who goes inside the fabrication area—which is more sterile than a hospital operating room—must don the head-to-toe covering known as a “bunny suit.”
It starts with the “bouffant,” a cap that stretches over your head to cover your hair. Next are the booties that go over the shoes, a mask that covers your face up to the eyeballs, and a piece of headgear that looks like a beekeeper’s helmet. Everything is made of pale-blue, lightweight synthetic cloth. A full-body smock that zips up the front covers everything down to the ankles, and cloth boots come up to the knees and fasten with Velcro. The last item is the goggles. A reporter’s notebook must be left outside, replaced by a notebook with special paper that doesn’t create loose fibers if it’s accidentally ripped.
“None of this stuff is to protect you from anything,” says John Gervais, Fairchild’s director of site services. “It’s all to protect the product.”
A sticky patch on the floor removes any tiny particles that might be riding in on the rubber soles of your fabric boots. Step through another door, and you enter a temperature- and humidity-controlled world of high-tech machinery run by bunny-suited technicians who somehow recognize one another. “It’s the eyes, and the way people walk,” says process engineer Josh Madore, who is slightly taller than Gervais and speaks in a deeper voice. There are two different colors of suits: Machine operators wear light blue; maintenance workers wear white.
This part of the Fab is laid out in what’s called a “bay and chase” design. It’s essentially a series of corridors connected by doors and an elaborate air filtration system. The bays are where the people in the blue suits build the chips. They’re full of dials and computer screens and robotics, the faces of 21st-century technology. The chases house the “body”—the circulatory system of pipes and wires and hoses that makes it all work.
“You have to maintain a very clean environment,” Gervais explains. “The bays are the processing areas. The chases are for service, and they’re not clean—well, they’re very clean, actually, but not for processing. All the bays have HEPA (high efficiency particle) filters above the entire bay. The air washes down through the filters into the clean space, the processing space, and returns up the chase spaces. It continually recirculates.”
Some rooms in the Fab building house ancillary services that help keep the production lines running: a full-service machine shop, plastic shop, and electronics shop. There’s also a full-service quartz shop, which can repair and fabricate quartz tubes, where many of the high-temperature reactions take place. “We actually have the capability of repairing and fabricating, and doing some quartz work here on-site, which is kind of rare,” Gervais says. “You don’t see that in a lot of semi houses anymore. People usually buy that service.”
What comes out of the Fab are finished discs with many, many individual chips on them. They need to be cut apart, and this step of the process takes place overseas, at Fairchild’s plants in Asia.
Maine’s job is not complete when the discs are finished. Everything is tested, and retested, both in South Portland and again halfway around the world. “We have several screens where we test functionality before we give it to a customer, to be sure we meet those specifications and requirements,” Madore says. “There’s an elaborate infrastructure to weed out poor-performing material. At each test point, the performance criteria become more stringent.”
When the product arrives overseas, it will be mounted on tape and cut into individual chips. “The thinner you can cut it, the more of the wafer you can use,” says Michael Dube, Fairchild’s senior director of manufacturing product engineering. “We do grind the back of the wafer. Depending on what application it’s going into, we thin it down. When you think about, for example, a cell phone, everything’s getting thinner and smaller. In some cases, it gets as thin as a piece of paper. If I were to handle something like that, it would shatter.”
Each individual chip is marked with a code that makes it traceable, so that engineers can figure out how to increase the yield, or the percentage of usable chips on each wafer. In the Asia plants, individual units are packaged onto a reel that resembles a roll of movie film, and the reels of chips are shipped to the customer.
Fairchild Semiconductor’s customer list reads like a who’s who of modern industry: Apple, Samsung, Sony, Bosch, Motorola, and more. Robin Goodwin, Fairchild’s executive vice president of global manufacturing, says the company’s product focus has changed over the past 10 to 15 years.
“In the early stages, a third of it or more was in the computing space: desktop computers, laptops, those types of things,” he says. “Now that’s about 20% or a little less. We’re not walking away from it, but it is not nearly the core of our business that it once was.”
Two areas, Goodwin says, have jumped to the forefront. “One is in the industrial markets; that includes everything along the lines of power supplies, motors, air conditioning, washing machines. That’s our biggest area. The consumer market continues to be big for us, too,” he adds. “We do quite a bit with LCD TVs, we do some amount in games. Computing is probably third in terms of the markets we serve.”
Goodwin believes Fairchild Semiconductor’s biggest opportunity lies in the area of power conservation and renewable energy. “The area we’re seeing the most growth—and it makes sense—is in those applications that are power hogs,” he says. “A lot of power is wasted. The previous technology didn’t know how to differentiate. For the savings, from a power standpoint, that’s where the biggest gains can be had. Legislation is going to force us in that direction anyway. The U.S. is behind Europe in this, but it’s starting to catch up in terms of energy policy.”
High energy costs are one of the challenges of doing business in Maine, and Fairchild’s processes in South Portland are energy intensive. “We’re unique here at this site in that we buy our power directly off the wholesale market,” says Gervais. “We’ve gotten some great deals through partnering with biomass facilities. We actually buy about 80% of our power today from a company in Greenville. With things the way they are in the market right now, they couldn’t operate unless they had a firm fixed agreement with us. So we’re helping them, and they’re stabilizing our energy prices. We have a couple of energy consultants we work with, and they claim we’re getting the best deal of any company in the state. We use a lot of power. Our annual power bill is around $6 million.”
Another challenge is the perception that Maine’s tax structure discourages business. “From a tax standpoint, it’s not favorable,” Goodwin says. “My sense is that the local government here does what it can to work with us. But at the state level, it’s difficult. Governor King was directly involved with locating National Semiconductor’s eight-inch Fab here in South Portland,” he recalls. “National was considering several locations for a new facility and ultimately chose Maine.”
“The benefits to Maine far exceeded the lifetime of any tax incentives,” he says. “But the state typically doesn’t take that attitude. They’re up against not only other states in the U.S. who are willing to work with us, but other countries. Payroll taxes could be waived for a period of time. But the state tends to look at it in a negative way; why should businesses like Fairchild get those breaks? The reality is you’ve got to compete. There are other states and other countries, and if they are willing to partner with Fairchild in a way that Maine is not, it puts the state at a competitive disadvantage.”
An advantage of being in Maine is the dedicated workforce and a solid educational structure. “From an engineering perspective, there aren’t that many high-tech opportunities in Maine,” Madore says, “and this is one of the more rewarding and interesting fields. It’s great to have this opportunity in Maine. We hire a lot of graduates from the Maine university system.”
“And from a facilities perspective, we grab a lot of Maine Maritime Academy grads,” adds Gervais. “They’ve got the perfect background to run our factory.”
Still, Greg Maher says, a lot of Mainers don’t realize what their neighbors who work at Fairchild accomplish every day. “You can crack open your cell phone, and there’s something that is defined, designed, and fabricated all in South Portland. And it’s a phone from a major international manufacturer. A lot of the engineers here in South Portland worked on that [USB detector] chip, and many of them are alumni of the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine.”
“We are very global,” Goodwin says. “Maine can be a part of that. It is a rapidly changing world, and it’s great to have an organization in Maine that’s such a critical part of that.”
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Maine’s role in the invention that changed everything.
The transistor had been called the most important invention of the 20th century. It revolutionized the field of electronics and made possible the small miracles that sit on our desks and fit in our pockets and put a world of information at our fingertips.
A transistor is a small electronic device that can cause changes in a large electrical output signal by small changes in a small input signal. For example, very weak radio signals in the air can be picked up by a wire antenna and processed by transistor amplifiers until they are strong enough to be heard by the human ear.
William Shockley Jr. won a Nobel Prize as the coinventor of the transistor. In 1955, he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in Santa Clara, California. In 1957, eight engineers at Shockley Laboratories split off to form their own company, which would build a new kind of transistor. Known as “the traitorous eight,” they included Robert Noyce and Jean Hoerni, who developed the miniaturized integrated circuit and the planar transistor, built on a fingernail-sized wafer of crystalline silicon. Fairchild Semiconductor was born.
The South Portland plant opened in 1962.
In 1968, Noyce left Fairchild to start Intel, which would become the world’s leading manufacturer of microprocessors, chips that can hold millions of transistors and are the foundation of today’s personal computers. Noyce died in 1990. His first wife, Elizabeth Bottomley Noyce, used her substantial divorce settlement to become one of Maine’s notable philanthropists, giving lavishly to the Portland Museum of Art, the Maine Maritime Museum, and the University of Maine. She died in 1996.
Fairchild was acquired by National Semiconductor in 1987. The company became a separate entity again 10 years later when National decided to go in a different direction. “They were going for the higher-end, higher-value functionality products,” says Robin Goodwin, executive vice president of global manufacturing. “Initially we were not in direct competition, but over time we have gravitated into spaces that do have direct competition with them, particularly in the mobile business.”
National built a new factory in South Portland adjacent to the Fairchild facility. Today, the two factories operate side-by-side. “For the most part, we operate independently,” Goodwin says. “There are some logistical things that we share, like our chemical building, as sort of a mutual benefit for both companies.”
Fairchild Semiconductor • South Portland, Maine
1957 (South Portland plant opened in 1962).
The “Traitorous Eight” from Shockley Semiconductor (Gordon E. Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Robert N. Noyce, Victor H. Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean A. Hoerni, and Jay T. Last) invested $3,500 of their own money to develop a method of mass-producing silicon transistors.
Publicly traded; Mark Thompson, chairman, president, and CEO.
San Jose, California; South Portland, Maine; Singapore.
San Jose, California; South Portland, Maine; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Oulu, Finland; Bucheon City, South Korea; Yerawada, India.
South Portland, Maine; Mountaintop, Pennsylvania; West Jordan, Utah; Suzhou, China; Bucheon City, South Korea; Penang, Malaysia; Cebu, Philippines; Singapore.
8,800 worldwide; approximately 900 in Maine.
Worldwide. Fairchild’s customers include most of the world’s top electronics manufacturers.
Fairchild buys its energy wholesale. The annual power bill for the South Portland
Fab is close to $6 million.
Fiscal year 2009 sales:
Accolades and awards:
Too many to list.
Energy costs, Maine business climate, global competition.
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