Intel’s largest offshore plant | ENBLE

Intel's largest offshore plant | ENBLE

Inside Intel: A Glimpse into the World of CPU Manufacturing

Image credit: Kunal Khullar / ENBLE

It’s not often that a technology giant opens its doors to the public, giving them an exclusive look at its inner workings. However, Intel recently did just that when it invited global press and media representatives to visit its factories in Malaysia as part of its Tech Tour 2023 event. This rare opportunity allowed us to gain a detailed insight into the fascinating process of CPU manufacturing.

Before delving into my experience, let’s first take a brief look at Intel’s history and future plans in Malaysia. The company established its first offshore facility in Malaysia back in 1972, employing 100 people. Fast forward to today, and Intel has two major facilities in Penang and Kulim, covering close to 900,000 square feet and employing 15,000 individuals.

With increasing demands and in line with its IDM 2.0 strategy, Intel is expanding its facilities. The company is currently constructing a new advanced packaging facility called Pelican and an assembly test facility called Falcon, set to be operational within the next two years. Intel envisions a total built-up area of 7 million square feet, with over 2 million square feet dedicated to manufacturing across 16 buildings in the future.

A Visit to Intel Malaysia

The tour was divided into two days, with the first day taking us to the Penang Assembly and Test (PGAT) facility. This facility is responsible for assembling, validating, and testing silicon dies to identify any errors. However, it is at the Kulim facility where the magic truly happens. The Intel Kulim Die Sort Die Prep (KMDSDP) facility is a state-of-the-art facility that processes silicon wafers, the raw material that makes up the best processors.

Upon arriving in Kulim, we were given a briefing and instructed to put on special bunny suits with additional headgear and beard protection. This was necessary to maintain dust-free manufacturing areas. Moreover, we were not allowed to carry any devices inside, ensuring no disruption to the production process.

The Intricacies of Die Prep and Die Sort

The KMDSDP facility is responsible for two essential operations: die preparation and die sort. In the die preparation phase, complete 300mm wafers are received and attached to flexible mylar sheets. These sheets ensure that each die stays in place after it has been cut and separated. Through grinding, laser scribing, and mechanical cutting, the sheets are processed to create individual chips. The chips are then separated from the mylar using a vacuum and UV light combination and placed into trays using robotic arms. These trays are then sorted and assigned to specific SKUs (Core i9, Core i7, etc.).

Next, the chips undergo testing and sorting. Intel employs massive sorting modules, each containing 20 individual test cells. These cells weigh approximately 1,000 pounds and are moved by a specially designed lifting mechanism that hovers above the floor using a cushion of air. This allows for precise and effortless movement of the modules.

During testing, each chip is connected to a probe card equipped with thousands of fine needles thinner than a human hair. These needles measure the electrical characteristics of the chip circuits, ensuring reliability and identifying any defects. The entire testing process is automated, with workers monitoring the process via various monitors.

Assembly, Testing, and Validation

Once the testing and sorting phases are complete, the trays with chips that have successfully passed all tests are sealed between two layers of film and rolled onto reels. These reels then transport the chips to assembly and test facilities located around the world for further processing.

Our second day at Intel Malaysia took us to the Penang Assembly and Test (PGAT) facility. This facility focuses on assembling and testing millions of chips each day. Here, the reels with chips are received, and each die is removed, packaged, and tested before they are ready for market.

The assembly and test process at the PGAT facility involves six key stages. The journey begins with the Chip Attach process, where the die or chip is attached to the substrate. This intricate process requires high precision to avoid any damage. An additional layer of epoxy underfill is applied to remove microscopic gaps between the die and the substrate.

The next step involves attaching the Integrated Heat Spreader (IHS), which aids in efficient heat dissipation. Once the CPU is fully assembled, it undergoes rigorous testing to ensure its functionality. Intel has a dedicated Design and Development Lab where burn-in testing, electrical testing, and platform product screening are performed. All aspects, including memory and PCIe lanes, are thoroughly tested to guarantee reliability.

The Future of Intel’s Manufacturing

The entire experience of witnessing the CPU manufacturing process firsthand was nothing short of extraordinary. The scale of operations and the intricacies involved in producing a single CPU were awe-inspiring. Intel’s manufacturing facilities function like well-oiled machines, with dedicated workers ensuring the high quality of their products.

Moreover, this tour provided a clear glimpse into Intel’s future. The company’s commitment to introducing five nodes within the next four years demonstrates its determination to maintain its leadership in the industry. While competitors like AMD provide stiff competition, Intel’s impressive manufacturing capabilities and IDM 2.0 strategy for innovation, manufacturing, and product leadership increase its chances of success.

In the near future, we can expect Intel to launch new mobile chipsets under the 14th-gen ‘Meteor Lake’ moniker. These chips will utilize the Intel 4 process, a significant milestone as it will be the first chip lineup to employ the 7nm process. Additionally, rumors suggest that next-gen desktop processors will be arriving as a refresh to the existing 13th-gen Raptor Lake lineup.

The visit to Intel Malaysia’s factories was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that provided invaluable insights into the world of CPU manufacturing. It showcased Intel’s dedication to innovation and quality, as well as its ambition to stay at the forefront of the industry. While challenges lie ahead, particularly from fierce competitors, Intel’s commitment to excellence and continuous improvement puts it in a favorable position for the future.