The enormous effort of producing a tiny microchip

Some have more than 50 billion tiny transistors that are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are made in gigantic, extremely clean factories that can be seven stories high and the length of four football fields.

Microchips are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the modern economy. They power computers, smartphones, cars, appliances, and many other electronic devices. But global demand for them has increased since the pandemic, which also caused supply chain disruptions, leading to global shortages.

That, in turn, is fueling inflation and raising alarm bells that the United States is becoming too dependent on foreign-made chips. The United States accounts for only about 12 percent of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity; more than 90 percent of the most advanced chips come from Taiwan.

Intel, a Silicon Valley titan looking to restore its former leadership in chip-making technology, is making a $20 billion bet that it can alleviate the chip deficit. It is building two factories at its chip manufacturing complex in Chandler, Arizona, which will take three years to complete, and also recently announced plans for a potentially larger expansion, with new locations in New Albany, Ohio and Magdeburg, Germany.

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Why does making millions of these tiny components translate into building—and spending—so much? A look inside Intel’s manufacturing plants in Chandler and Hillsboro, Oregon, offers some answers.

What do the chips do?

Chips, or integrated circuits, began to replace bulky individual transistors in the late 1950s. Many of these tiny components are produced on one piece of silicon and wired together to work together. The resulting chips store data, amplify radio signals, and perform other operations; Intel is famous for a variety called microprocessors, which perform most of a computer’s computing functions.

Intel has managed to shrink the transistors in its microprocessors to mind-boggling sizes. But its rival, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), can make even smaller components, a key reason Apple chose it to make the chips for its latest iPhones.

Such victories by a company based in Taiwan, an island China claims as its own, add to signs of a widening technology gap that could put advances in computing, consumer devices and military hardware at risk, both for the ambitions of China as for the natural hazards in Taiwan, such as earthquakes and droughts. In addition, it has highlighted Intel’s efforts to regain technological leadership.

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How are chips made?

Chipmakers are putting more and more transistors into each piece of silicon, which explains why the technology is making more every year. It’s also why new chip factories cost billions of dollars and fewer companies have the money to build them.

In addition to paying for buildings and machinery, companies must invest heavily in developing the complex processing steps used to make chips from plate-size silicon wafers—factories such as these are called “fabs.” .

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