making microprocessor chips -- 10/26/22
Today's selection -- from Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World by Simon Winchester. The machines involved in making microprocessor chips:
"Once every few weeks, beginning in the summer of 2018, a trio of large Boeing freighter aircraft, most often converted and windowless 747s of the Dutch airline KLM, takes off from Schiphol airport outside Amsterdam, with a precious cargo bound eventually for the city of Chandler, a western desert exurb of Phoenix, Arizona. The cargo is always the same, consisting of nine white boxes in each aircraft, each box taller than a man. To get these profoundly heavy containers from the airport in Phoenix to their destination, twenty miles away, requires a convoy of rather more than a dozen eighteen-wheeler trucks. On arrival and family uncrated, the contents of all the boxes are bolted together to form one enormous 160-ton machine -- a machine tool, in fact, a direct descendant of the machine tools invented and used by men such as Joseph Bramah and Henry Maudslay and Henry Royce and Henry Ford a century and more before.
"Just like its cast-iron predecessors, this Dutch-made behemoth of a tool (fifteen of which compose the total order due to be sent to Chandler, each delivered as it is made) is a machine that makes machines. Yet, rather than making mechanical devices by the precise cutting of metal from metal, this gigantic device is designed for the manufacture of the tiniest of machines imaginable, all of which perform their work electronically, without any visible moving parts.
"For here we come to the culmination of precision's quartermillennium evolutionary journey. Up until this moment, almost all the devices and creations that required a degree of precision in their making had been made of metal, and performed their various functions through physical movements of one kind or another. Pistons rose and fell; locks opened and closed; rifles fired; sewing machines secured pieces of fabric and created hems and selvedges; bicycles wobbled along lanes; cars ran along highways; ball bearings spun and whirled; trains snorted out of tunnels; aircraft flew through the skies; telescopes deployed; clocks ticked or hummed, and their hands moved ever forward, never back, one precise second at a time.
"Then came the computer, then the personal computer, then the smartphone, then the previously unimaginable tools of today -- and with this helter-skelter technological evolution came a time of translation, a time when the leading edge of precision passed itself out into the beyond, moving as if through an invisible gateway, from the purely mechanical and physical world and into an immobile and silent universe, one where electrons and protons and neutrons have replaced iron and oil and bearings and lubricants and trunnions and the paradigm-altering idea of interchangeable parts, and where, though the components might well glow with fierce lights send out intense waves of heat, nothing moved one piece against another in mechanical fashion, no machine required that measured exactness be an essential attribute of every component piece. Precision had by now reached a degree of exactitude that would be of relevance and use only at the near-atomic level, and for devices that were now near-universally electronic and that obeyed different rules and could perform tasks hitherto never even considered.
"The particular device sent out to perform such tasks in Arizona, and which, when fully assembled, is as big as a modest apartment, is known formally as an NXE:3350B EUV scanner. It is made by a generally unfamiliar but formidably important Dutch-registered company known simply by its initials, ASML. Each one of the machines in the order costs its customer about $100 million, making the total order worth around $1. 5 billion.
"The customer whose place of business is in Chandler -- a conglomeration of huge and faceless buildings that are known in the argot as a 'fab,' or fabrication plant, for in line with this new world order, factories that make metal things are being supplemented by fabs that make electronic things -- could easily afford the sum. Intel Corporation, a fifty-year-old tentpole of the modern computer industry, has current assets well in excess of $100 billion. Its central business is the making, in the many fabs it has scattered around the planet -- the one in Chandler is known as Fab 42 -- of electronic microprocessor chips, the operating brains of almost all the world's computers. The enormous ASML devices allow the firm to manufacture these chips, and to place transistors on them in huge numbers and to any almost unreal level of precision and minute scale that today's computer industry, pressing for ever-speedier and more powerful computers, endlessly demands.
"How the two tasks are managed, the making of the chips and the making of the machines that make the chips, are two of the more memorable and intertwined precision-related sagas of recent years. The technology that now binds the two companies together is performed on such an infinitesimally minute scale, and to tolerances that would have seemed unimaginably absurd and well-nigh unachievable only decades ago, that it is taking precision into the world of the barely believable -- except that it is a world that manifestly must be believed, a world from which, one can argue, modern humankind benefits mightily and for whose existence it is all the better, an assertion with which both Intel and ASML would readily agree."