Semiconductor plant construction in North America is entering a new era. The CHIPS Act, passed by the federal government in the United States this summer, provides $52 billion in government funding to semiconductor manufacturers building in the U.S.
The funding will catalyze the construction of many semiconductors’ fabrication plants, known as foundries. According to Forbes, over the past twenty years the U.S. has fallen from a 37% share of the semiconductor production market, to currently 12% of global production. The CHIPS Act addresses the growing gap in the supply and demand of semiconductors in the U.S.
This means that semiconductor manufacturing owners will need, for the first time in over 20 years, to answer a high-stakes question: what should we look for in a design and building partner?
A contractor that understands the intricacies of cleanrooms is key.
A cleanroom, explains PCL’s Andy Ahrendt, director of manufacturing, is a necessary part of advanced manufacturing facilities and where production of product happens. The purpose is to control an environment by limiting the presence of submicron particles that could render products contaminated or defective. Any manufacturing facility supplying electronic components – semiconductor, high tech, pharmaceutical, aerospace, medical and others – depend on cleanroom technology.
“Cleanrooms are certified to extremely high standards,” says Ahrendt. “These run from Class 100,000 to Class 1, which is the cleanest.” A cleanroom’s Class identifies the number of microscopic airborne particles, measured as 0.5 microns, permitted per cubic foot of air in a room. The classification number means that amount of 0.5-micron particles are permitted per cubic foot of air.
If the upper end of that range sounds none too clean, consider that a human hair is about 75 microns in diameter and a dust particle can be five microns or less. The human eye can detect particles around the 50-micron mark.
“Building any cleanroom for a semiconductor facility is really a whole new mindset as a contractor,” says Ahrendt. “You have to start with the end in mind and build with a clean-build mindset.”
The construction process is inherently dirty and can create debris and dust, referred to as foreign object debris or FOD. This debris can hang around and create problems well after construction is complete if the proper clean-build approach is not implemented.
Cleanroom construction is very different from typical commercial or industrial construction – the typical materials, techniques and equipment used throughout the construction process are not clean per cleanroom standards, even on the cleanest of construction sites. Additionally, possible clean room contamination does not come from particles created by construction activities alone. Contamination can creep in from almost anywhere, including on personnel – aftershave, tobacco, lotions or perfumes – grease from tools, certain kinds of pens, and even airborne particulates created by air conditioning systems. These microscopic particles could settle in air vents or on surfaces in the room and move around the clean room after construction is complete.
Clean-build is a mindset at the beginning of building a clean room, which drives all construction operations. It starts with solid communication and training before anyone even sets foot on-site. PCL begins each cleanroom project with promoting and developing a ‘leave no trace’ approach using a thoroughly developed, tried and tested program. A cleanroom build requires all project personnel to change into containment suits, and all tools and equipment must be cleaned and inspected prior to entering the space. “Having solid, proven training programs are important to guide project teams and onboard subcontractors,” says Ahrendt.
The thorough requirements of cleanrooms also place a premium on coordination during a build. Sealing up the cleanroom sections of a build while ensuring all required equipment is correctly installed and the overall build stays on track is an intricate logistical dance. The slightest misstep can have a serious impact on a project’s schedule and budget. Having the experience to provide insight and identify potential setbacks is essential to developing a solid coordination plan.
PCL has decades of experience building cleanrooms across North America from Class 100,000 to Class 1, including semiconductor facilities. That experience has helped Ahrendt and his team develop numerous cleanroom standard operating procedures used across PCL to boost efficiency without compromising quality. From design floor loading and deflection criteria for equipment to bench testing filters, airflow, pressurization tests and walkable sealed cleanroom T-bar ceiling systems, and penetration seals, we attend to all the details to make your project a success.
“We take these standards from job to job so we’re not reinventing the wheel each time,” he says. “These run from quality checks and balances to subcontractor management to how to receive and hookup equipment to all the cleaning, testing and production start-up.”
That’s not to say that every advanced manufacturing job is the same, though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
While semiconductor foundries share rigorous cleanroom requirements with other advanced manufacturing facilities, the similarities end there. Each facility has unique needs that a contractor needs to deeply understand early in the project, says Ahrendt.
“The earlier an experienced contractor is involved, the better we can achieve a clean build mindset and a successful production start-up,” he says.
Understanding every detail behind the project and the client’s needs is why Ahrendt advises clients to seek out a contractor who wants to be involved in the project as early as possible.
“You can describe every manufacturing plant in history as raw material in one end and finished product out the other,” he says. “In the middle is where the magic happens, but many times contractors are not aware of the end product requirements. Learning the client’s product and process very well, as a builder and a designer, will ensure startup success.”
The earlier in a project a client hires the build team, the earlier training and coordination can begin to mitigate schedule interruptions and control cost.
On a previous semiconductor foundry project, PCL prequalified all bidders prior to solicitation to ensure they had the experience needed to execute the work. All subcontractors were onboarded early with the specific requirements of the execution plan based upon the owner’s process and clean-build protocols. This process mitigated risk and assured all stakeholders were aligned early in the project – a benefit to the schedule while assuring a high-quality build.
Besides early involvement, “contractors must become an expert in their client’s production. You need to ask the right questions, and you can only do that if you understand the production environment.” Advanced manufacturing facilities require specialized equipment and having a clear understanding of the particulars of the process helps the team prepare the space for placing equipment.
Semiconductor facilities are a unique aspect of advanced manufacturing and hiring a build partner with exceptional insight into cleanroom building and experience working with design teams with ensure a successful and high-quality foundry to meet the demand of the market.