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Chips & Cleanrooms: Building the Heart of the U.S. Semiconductor Industry

Throughout 2023, semiconductors have taken center stage, powering our favorite gadgets, fueling the AI craze, and causing bull runs on related company stocks on the NYSE. Last year alone, over 1 trillion semiconductors were sold globally— a clear sign of just how much we've come to depend on them and how the industry is booming.

On our home turf - the U.S. semiconductor scene has seen a significant boost from the government's proactive approach. Rolling out the CHIPS and Science Act and investing $280 billion into domestic research and manufacturing aims to reinforce America's economic and national security while bolstering supply chain resilience. The act's implementation marks a strategic effort to retain our nation’s competitive edge in this high-stakes industry​.

Now, the success of all this rides on semiconductor cleanrooms. They are basically the breeding grounds for the microelectronic marvels of our era. Let’s look at how they fit into the bigger picture and what to expect.

The Role of Cleanrooms in Semiconductor Manufacturing

Cleanrooms are the heart of contamination control and ensuring the high yields necessary for economic viability. They are specifically designed environments where particulate and chemical contaminants are kept at bay to protect the intricate processes of chip production.


The standards for particle concentration in semiconductor cleanrooms are stringent, with ISO 14644-1 Class 5 or lower being a common requirement, allowing a maximum of 3,520 particles at 0.5µm or less per cubic meter of air​. These cleanrooms must adhere to a range of classifications, often from ISO 6 (Class 1000), which is the cleanest, to ISO Class 6 to accommodate the delicate nature of semiconductor manufacturing​​. The specific class required can vary based on the detailed processes involved in a facility's operations​​.

With film thicknesses in semiconductor devices being much smaller than the pattern feature sizes, defects even as small as one-hundredth of the lithographic dimension can compromise a device's integrity. To maintain yields, a reduction of particulate levels by a factor of almost 10 is necessary when device dimensions are scaled down by 1/3 to 1/2.

To get about 78 out of 100 chips right, each step in the process (and there can be like 250 steps!) has to be almost perfect, with hardly any defects – each step introducing fewer than 0.001 critical defects per square centimeter. Storing wafers in a Class 1 vertical laminar flow cleanroom for an hour can be sufficient to maintain this level of defect control.

Recent Advances in Cleanroom Design

The global sales of semiconductors, influenced by Big Data trends like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), are projected to reach an impressive $515 billion in 2023​. With all these new use cases popping up – like self-driving cars, gadgets continuing to shrink, and even nanotech – there's a big need for more advanced cleanrooms to keep up the pace. So, what materials and construction techniques are making waves?

1. Flexibility First: Going Modular

There has been a shift to modular cleanroom designs, an approach that offers flexibility and speed in construction. These cleanrooms, built from modular building blocks, can be expanded or relocated as needed, ensuring that semiconductor companies can adapt to market demands​​.

Hardwall types, in particular, are leading the charge. The ease of expansion and reconfiguration makes them a preferred choice for companies looking to stay agile in a competitive market​. A sidenote – in North America, the significant market growth is also attributed to the healthcare sector's expansion and tight product approval standards​​.

2. Enhanced Air Filtration Systems

Semiconductor manufacturing requires extreme control over the surrounding environment. This means making sure that the conditions should be steady – and to the required standard, all over, from where the chips are processed to where they're checked and measured. This is especially vital for the production of integrated circuits with geometries smaller than 10 nanometers.

Cleanroom HVAC Air Circulation (Ducted Filter)

To meet these stringent requirements, cleanroom providers have developed high-precision climate-control systems such as the smart fab concept. These offer ultra-precise temperature, humidity, and flow controls, crucial for the sensitive processes involved. The smart fab concept also provides transparency and instant data access, optimizing system sustainability and energy efficiency are maximized at every stage of the fab's life cycle​​.

3. Automated Cleanroom Technologies

With the extreme cleanliness required for semiconductor fabrication, cleanroom-rated robots are essential. Human interaction, even with protective coveralls, poses a risk of contamination. Even a single particle on a wafer can lead to significant financial losses. Automation equipment, particularly robots not designed for cleanroom requirements, can also introduce impurities.

You don’t have to just worry about particles leaking from robotic joints; ingress into the joints is also a concern. For instance, impurities such as dust, liquids, and metal fragments can damage a robot's internal components. So if you want to work with robots that have the appropriate IP ratings for the specific cleanroom environment, that is critical​.

Omron, a leader in this field, addresses this challenge by adhering to ISO 14644-1 and Fed 209E cleanroom class requirements. Their approach includes utilizing stainless steel components, vacuums inside the robot, and using non-gassing lubricants to prevent contamination.

4. Monitoring and Contamination Detection Technologies

There have also been rising concerns about indoor air pollution and heightened awareness of particle transmission. Particle counters come in to calculate the air quality index. They do this by tracking how many particles are in the air, including pollutants and impurities. Ina fact, the global particle counters market, valued at USD 468.3 million in 2021, is expanding with a 10.15% CAGR due to increasing concerns about indoor pollution​.

Advanced particle counters, such as the Triplett Model EPC600 Environmental Particle Counter, are designed for testing indoor air quality in semiconductor fabrication and other applications like data centers and operating rooms. Government regulations and quality certifications also drive the demand for such technology, emphasizing the need for certified products to ensure adherence to the highest standards of production and product quality​.


The Economic & Competitive Advantage of High-Tech Cleanrooms

It’s not all limited to the semiconductor industry. The global cleanroom technologies market, currently valued at $8.2 billion, is expected to leap to $11.4 billion by 2028, clocking a CAGR of 6.8%. This surge is partly due to the increased adoption of advanced pharmaceutical formulations and the growth of the biologics sector​.

Investing in advanced cleanroom technologies not only aligns with stringent regulatory demands but also equips businesses with the agility to adapt and grow for a competitive edge in the fast-changing semiconductor landscape.

No Innovation Without Obstacles

The need for certified products in different industries requires processing them in cleanrooms to minimize contamination and meet ISO standards. Yet, this growth isn't without its challenges. Some of those encountered include:

  • Costs of Creation and Maintenance:

Setting up cleanrooms requires a substantial initial investment in specialized infrastructure and technology, reflecting these environments' precise and controlled nature.

The cost of building a cleanroom can vary widely, ranging from less than $175 (lover grade cleanrooms) to more than $1,500 per square foot depending on factors such as:

i. Size of the Cleanroom: Larger cleanrooms benefit from economies of scale, lowering the cost for each square foot. But due to their increased size, the overall cost still goes up since there's just so much more room to cover.

ii. Use of Fume Hoods/Biosafety Cabinets: These require air replacement and conditioning, necessitating larger air handling units.

iii. Monitoring System: Necessary for meeting industry regulations, monitoring systems range from basic manual systems to advanced automated ones – each with its price tag.

iv. Installation Space and Location: The distance from the manufacturing facility, the complexity of the installation site, and environmental factors (like temperature and humidity control) affect the cost.

v. Utilities and Access Panels in Walls: This looks at the required number and type of utilities (like power outlets and plumbing).

vi. High-End Look: Choices in doors, windows, air return grilles, and lighting systems can vary in cost.

vii. Process Utilities and Automation (PUA): Orchestration of precision cleanroom operations, ensuring real-time compliance with stringent standards and delivering long-term cost efficiency through automated task optimization. The versatility of OUA systems seamlessly adapts to cleanrooms of carrying sizes, catering to the unique requirements of each space.

Maintaining cleanrooms isn't just a one-time affair; it involves consistent and regular upkeep, such as thorough cleaning, equipment servicing, and meticulous environment monitoring, all of which contribute to the ongoing operational costs.

  • Shortage of Skilled Personnel:

Cleanroom operations require a workforce with specialized skills for managing sensitive environments and handling advanced equipment. Not only does the industry need to train new personnel to meet these specific requirements, but it also has to ensure that the existing workforce keeps up to date with the latest technologies and practices.

The workforce in the semiconductor industry, in particular, is expected to grow by 33%, from approximately 345,000 jobs in 2023 to about 460,000 jobs by 2030. However, a lot of these new jobs might not get filled because not enough people are finishing the degrees needed for them.

  • Technological Upgrades and Obsolescence:

The tech landscape is constantly churning out new equipment, which means that equipment and systems can quickly become obsolete – a.k.a. frequent (and often expensive) upgrades. A fab completed in 2026 is already set to have a ten-year Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of $35 - 43 billion, which is 33% to 66% higher than current costs. While this is largely attributed to escalating process complexity, like more mask layers requiring extra manufacturing steps, the operational costs of maintaining semiconductor cleanrooms will pile up to the bottom line.

  • Complexity in Design and Construction:

Every cleanroom must be designed to meet exact industry standards, requiring a high degree of precision. The construction of these specialized facilities calls for a deep well of specialized knowledge and is often a lengthy process. That’s why experts at DesignTek Consulting are here.

  • Regulatory Compliance and Standardization:

Compliance is not straightforward, as it requires understanding and adhering to a diverse set of rules that vary across industries. Additionally, aligning with international standards demands ongoing vigilance and the ability to adapt swiftly. This dual challenge of meeting both specific regulations and broader international standards adds layers of complexity, which will be easier to manage with a qualified and experienced team on your side.

  • Supply Chain and Material Availability:

Global supply chain disruptions present a significant hurdle, often causing delays that can set back schedules and operations. Causes range from geopolitical conflicts and inflationary pressures to climate change events. These disruptions impact the flow of goods, create port holdups, reduce container and ocean freight availability, and cause price surges.

Compounding this problem is the difficulty of getting a steady supply of the special, high-quality materials needed to build these specialized areas. These twin pressures from the supply side highlight the importance of strategic planning and resource management to keep cleanroom projects on track.

  • Risk Management and Contingency Planning:

Maintaining a controlled environment emphasizes keeping things clean and ensuring machines don’t break down. You need a backup as well – the contingencies for unforeseen events. However, putting together these plans is no small feat; it requires foresight, strategic thinking, and a deep understanding of potential challenges.

At DesignTek Consulting, we anticipate these trends and challenges, positioning ourselves to guide our clients through the evolving landscape of cleanroom technologies. Our commitment to integrating the latest in cleanroom design and engineering ensures that our client's facilities are future-ready, maintaining the highest standards of quality and efficiency.

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