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Fairchild Semiconductor: When It Comes to Wafers, Bigger Is Better

As technologies like cell phones and laptops have gotten smaller and smaller, the semiconductors that are used to power these devices have conversely gotten larger. When it comes to the semiconductor wafers that go in battery chargers, bigger certainly means better.

Fairchild Semiconductor

Fairchild Semiconductor is a leading global provider of semiconductor technology for a wide range of products, including power supplies, mobile devices, lighting applications, computing applications, electric motors and automotive applications.

“In semiconductor wafers, the bigger the starting wafer, the lower your manufacturing costs, if you can afford the capital expenditures that go along with them,” says Jeff Lauffer, director of engineering and new business at Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountaintop, PA.

In the world of semiconductors, “big” means eight inches. In the past, manufacturers turned out semiconductors between two and five inches in size. “At Fairchild Semiconductor, we make what are called ‘power discrete metal-oxide semiconductors, or MOS,” Lauffer says. “We were the first company in the world to manufacture them in an eight-inch silicon wafer. Today other companies are doing the same thing, but we were the first.”

Hiding in Plain Sight

The components created on eight-inch wafers go into chips used for computer power supplies, cell phones, “almost anything that has one of those battery charger packs,” Lauffer says. “We also put our devices in cordless power tools to control the power from the battery to the tool.” Fairchild’s automotive electronics go into power seats, power windows and antilock brakes in vehicles.

In addition, Fairchild makes a device called the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT), an efficient switch for controlling electric motors. “The IGBT is used in hybrid cars, washing machine motors, air conditioners and refrigerators-anything that would use an electric motor,” Lauffer says. “And we also make a certain type of IGBT for electronic ignitions in gas-powered cars for improved gas mileage that has recently begun to be used in the Japanese auto market.”

Regional Influence, Global Impact

The Fairchild Semiconductor plant in Mountaintop, which manufactures the eight-inch wafers and does some electrical testing on them, is one of numerous Fairchild sites across the world. “We ship the wafers to our assembly sites overseas in Malaysia, China and the Philippines, where they are assembled into components for different industries,” Lauffer says. Fairchild’s headquarters is located in South Portland, Maine, and they also have plants in Salt Lake City, and Bucheon, Korea, for a total of 9,000 employees worldwide.

The Pennsylvania plant has gone through many names since its inception in 1960-RCA, GE, Harris Semiconductor and Intersil before being acquired by Fairchild in 2001-but the company has retained longstanding employees, including Lauffer, who is celebrating his 30-year anniversary this year.

Ben Franklin’s Impact on the Manufacturing Process

One reason the company has stayed in business since its founding in 1960 is that it has adapted well to changes in the industry, including their switch to a larger, more efficient wafer. In order to make these necessary adaptations, the company received support from Ben Franklin Technology Partners for automation of the wafer-creation process.

With the money BFTP invested, totaling $175,000, the company implemented a system to produce nearly defect-free wafers in a Class 1 clean environment. Because of their microscopic detail, devices fabricated on eight-inch semiconductor wafers must be produced in a nearly contaminant-free area. “Class 1 means that there is only one particle in a cubic foot of air greater than half a micron-it is ultra, ultra clean, and that is the environment our wafers see,” Lauffer says.

BFTP also funded what’s called a standard mechanical interface (SMIF) pod, which helps in the handling of the eight-inch wafers, as well as “Smart Tags” that assure that the wafers are at the correct manufacturing step at the correct time. “Put simply, it’s a method of foolproofing our manufacturing process,” Lauffer says.

In addition to manufacturing improvements, BFTP has also offered networking support to Fairchild. “BFTP connects us to startup companies that may be interested in our wafers, and they have helped us foster relationships with local universities, including Penn State and Lehigh University,” Lauffer says. “We’re always looking for new opportunities.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes April, 2008
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