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Processor Manufacturing

Processors are manufactured primarily from silicon, the second most common element on the planet (only the element oxygen is more common). Silicon is the primary ingredient in beach sand; however, in that form it isn't pure enough to be used in chips.

The manner in which silicon is formed into chips is a lengthy process that starts by growing pure silicon crystals via what is called the Czochralski method (named after the inventor of the process). In this method, electric arc furnaces transform the raw materials (primarily quartz rock that is mined) into metallurgical-grade silicon. Then to further weed out impurities, the silicon is converted to a liquid, distilled, and then redeposited in the form of semiconductor-grade rods, which are 99.999999% pure. These rods are then mechanically broken up into chunks and packed into quartz crucibles, which are loaded into electric crystal pulling ovens. There the silicon chunks are melted at more than 2,500° Fahrenheit. To prevent impurities, the ovens usually are mounted on very thick concrete cubes—often on a suspension to prevent any vibration, which would damage the crystal as it forms.

After the silicon is melted, a small seed crystal is inserted into the molten silicon and slowly rotated (see Figure 3.3). As the seed is pulled out of the molten silicon, some of the silicon sticks to the seed and hardens in the same crystal structure as the seed. By carefully controlling the pulling speed (10–40 millimeters per hour) and temperature (approximately 2,500°F), the crystal grows with a narrow neck that then widens into the full desired diameter. Depending on the chips being made, each ingot is 200mm (approximately 8") or 300mm (12") in diameter and more than 5 feet long, weighing hundreds of pounds.


Figure 3.3 Growing a pure silicon ingot in a high-pressure, high-temperature oven.

The ingot is then ground into a perfect 200mm- (8") or 300mm-diameter (12") cylinder, with a small, flat cut on one side for positioning accuracy and handling. Each ingot is then cut with a high-precision diamond saw into more than a thousand circular wafers, each less than a millimeter thick (see Figure 3.4). Each wafer is then polished to a mirror-smooth surface.


Figure 3.4 Slicing a silicon ingot into wafers with a diamond saw.

Chips are manufactured from the wafers using a process called photolithography. Through this photographic process, transistors and circuit and signal pathways are created in semiconductors by depositing different layers of various materials on the chip, one after the other. Where two specific circuits intersect, a transistor or switch can be formed.

The photolithographic process starts when an insulating layer of silicon dioxide is grown on the wafer through a vapor deposition process. Then a coating of photoresist material is applied, and an image of that layer of the chip is projected through a mask onto the now light-sensitive surface.

Doping is the term used to describe chemical impurities added to silicon (which is naturally a nonconductor), creating a material with semiconductor properties. The projector uses a specially created mask, which is essentially a negative of that layer of the chip etched in chrome on a quartz plate. Modern processors have 20 or more layers of material deposited and partially etched away (each requiring a mask) and up to six or more layers of metal interconnects.

As the light passes through a mask, the light is focused on the wafer surface, exposing the photoresist with the image of that layer of the chip. Each individual chip image is called a die. A device called a stepper then moves the wafer over a little bit, and the same mask is used to imprint another chip die immediately next to the previous one. After the entire wafer is imprinted with a layer of material and photoresist, a caustic solution washes away the areas where the light struck the photoresist, leaving the mask imprints of the individual chip circuit elements and pathways. Then, another layer of semiconductor material is deposited on the wafer with more photoresist on top, and the next mask is used to expose and then etch the next layer of circuitry. Using this method, the layers and components of each chip are built one on top of the other until the chips are completed.

Some of the masks are used to add the metallization layers, which are the metal interconnects used to tie all the individual transistors and other components together. Most older chips use aluminum interconnects, although during 2002 many moved to copper. The first commercial PC processor chip to use copper was the 0.18-micron Athlon made in AMD's Dresden fab, and Intel shifted the Pentium 4 to copper with the 0.13-micron Northwood version (see Figure 3.5). Copper is a better conductor than aluminum and allows smaller interconnects with less resistance, meaning smaller and faster chips can be made. The reason copper hadn't been used until recently is that there were difficult corrosion problems to overcome during the manufacturing process that were not as much of a problem with aluminum. Now that these problems have been solved, more and more chips are fabricated with copper interconnects.


Figure 3.5 200mm wafer of the 0.13-micron Pentium 4 processors.

Another technology that is becoming common is the use of silicon on insulator (SOI) instead of CMOS technology. AMD uses SOI for its 90-namometer (0.09-micron) processors, and it's expected that SOI, which provides better insulation than CMOS for transistors, will continue to grow in popularity.

A completed circular wafer has as many chips imprinted on it as can possibly fit. Because each chip usually is square or rectangular, there are some unused portions at the edges of the wafer, but every attempt is made to use every square millimeter of surface.

The industry is going through several transitions in chip manufacturing. The trend in the industry is to use both larger wafers and a smaller chip die process. Process refers to the size and spacing of the individual circuits and transistors on the chip. In late 2001 and into 2002, chip manufacturing processes began moving from the 0.18-micron to the 0.13-micron process, the metal interconnects on the die began moving from aluminum to copper, and wafers began moving from 200mm (8") to 300mm (12") in diameter. The larger 300mm wafers alone enable more than double the number of chips to be made, compared to the 200mm used previously. The smaller 0.13-micron and 0.09-micron (90-nanometer) processes enables more transistors to be incorporated into the die while maintaining a reasonable die size and allowing for a sufficient yield. This means the trend for incorporating more and more cache within the die will continue, and transistor counts will rise to 1 billion per chip or more by 2010.

As an example of how this can affect a particular chip, let's look at the original Pentium 4. The standard wafer size used in the industry for many years was 200mm in diameter, or just under 8". This results in a wafer of about 31,416 square millimeters in area. The first version of the Pentium 4 with the Willamette core used a 0.18-micron process with aluminum interconnects on a die that was 217 square millimeters in area, had 42 million transistors, and was made on 200mm wafers. Therefore, up to 145 of these chips could fit on a 200mm (8") wafer.

The Pentium 4 processors with the Northwood core that followed it use a smaller 0.13-micron process with copper interconnects on a die that is 131 square millimeters in area with 55 million transistors. Northwood has double the on-die L2 cache (512KB) as compared to Willamette, which is why the transistor count is significantly higher. Even with the higher transistor count, the smaller 0.13-micron process results in a die that is more than 60% smaller, allowing up to 240 chips to fit on the same 200mm (8") wafer that could hold only 145 Willamette die.

Starting in early 2002, Intel began producing Northwood on the larger 300mm wafers, which have a surface area of 70,686 square millimeters. These wafers have 2.25 times the surface area of the smaller 200mm wafers, enabling more than double the number of chips to be produced per wafer. In the case of the Pentium 4 Northwood, up to 540 chip dies fit on a 300mm wafer. By combining the smaller die with the larger wafer, Pentium 4 production has increased by more than 3.7 times since the chip was first introduced. This is one reason newer chips are often more plentiful and less expensive than older ones.

In 2004, the industry began moving to the 90-nanometer (0.09-micron) process, allowing even smaller and faster chips to be made. Most new chips in 2005 were based on the 0.09-micron process, and it's expected that this will continue throughout 2006.

In 2007, we'll likely see a move toward a 65-nanometer process, and we'll see a 45-nanometer process in 2010. These advancements in process will allow 1 billion transistors per chip in 2010! All these will still be made on 300mm wafers because the next wafer transition isn't expected until 2013, when a transition to 450mm wafers is being considered. Table 3.17 lists the CPU process transitions.

Table 3.17. Past, Current, and Future CPU Process Transitions














Process (micron):













Process (nm):













Note that not all the chips on each wafer will be good, especially as a new production line starts. As the manufacturing process for a given chip or production line is perfected, more and more of the chips will be good. The ratio of good to bad chips on a wafer is called the yield. Yields well under 50% are common when a new chip starts production; however, by the end of a given chip's life, the yields are normally in the 90% range. Most chip manufacturers guard their yield figures and are very secretive about them because knowledge of yield problems can give their competitors an edge. A low yield causes problems both in the cost per chip and in delivery delays to their customers. If a company has specific knowledge of competitors' improving yields, it can set prices or schedule production to get higher market share at a critical point.

After a wafer is complete, a special fixture tests each of the chips on the wafer and marks the bad ones to be separated out later. The chips are then cut from the wafer using either a high-powered laser or diamond saw.

After being cut from the wafers, the individual dies are then retested, packaged, and retested again. The packaging process is also referred to as bonding because the die is placed into a chip housing in which a special machine bonds fine gold wires between the die and the pins on the chip. The package is the container for the chip die, and it essentially seals it from the environment.

After the chips are bonded and packaged, final testing is done to determine both proper function and rated speed. Different chips in the same batch often run at different speeds. Special test fixtures run each chip at different pressures, temperatures, and speeds, looking for the point at which the chip stops working. At this point, the maximum successful speed is noted and the final chips are sorted into bins with those that tested at a similar speed. For example, the Pentium 4 2.0A, 2.2, 2.26, 2.4, and 2.53GHz are all exactly the same chip made using the same die. They were sorted at the end of the manufacturing cycle by speed.

One interesting thing about this is that as a manufacturer gains more experience and perfects a particular chip assembly line, the yield of the higher-speed versions goes way up. So, of all the chips produced from a single wafer, perhaps more than 75% of them check out at the highest speed and only 25% or less run at the lower speeds. The paradox is that Intel often sells a lot more of the lower-priced, lower-speed chips, so it just dips into the bin of faster ones, labels them as slower chips, and sells them that way. People began discovering that many of the lower-rated chips actually ran at speeds much higher than they were rated, and the business of overclocking was born.

Processor Re-marking

As people learned more about how processors are manufactured and graded, an interesting problem arose: Unscrupulous vendors began re-marking slower chips and reselling them as if they were faster. Often the price between the same chip at different speed grades can be substantial—in the hundreds of dollars—so by changing a few numbers on the chip, the potential profits can be huge. Because most of the Intel and AMD processors are produced with a generous safety margin—that is, they typically run well past their rated speeds—the re-marked chips would seem to work fine in most cases. Of course, in many cases they wouldn't work fine, and the system would end up crashing or locking up periodically.

At first, the re-marked chips were just a case of rubbing off the original numbers and restamping with new official-looking numbers. These were easy to detect, though. Re-markers then resorted to manufacturing completely new processor housings, especially for the plastic-encased Slot 1 and Slot A processors from Intel and AMD that were popular in the late '90s and still quite common just a few years ago. Although it might seem to be a huge bother to make a custom plastic case and swap it with the existing case, because the profits can be huge, criminals find it very lucrative. This type of re-marking is a form of organized crime and isn't just some kid in his basement with sandpaper and a rubber stamp.

Intel and AMD have seen fit to put a stop to some of the re-marking by building overclock protection in the form of a multiplier lock into most of their chips dating back nearly 10 years. This is usually done in the bonding or cartridge manufacturing process, where the chips are intentionally altered so they won't run at any speeds higher than they are rated. Usually this involves changing the bus frequency (BF) pins or traces on the chip, which control the internal multipliers the chip uses. At one point, many feared that fixing the clock multiplier would put an end to hobbyist overclocking, but that proved not to be the case. Enterprising individuals found ways to run their motherboards at bus speeds higher than normal, so even though the CPU generally won't allow a higher multiplier, you can still run it at a speed higher than it was designed for by ramping up the speed of the processor bus.

The real problem with the overclock protection as implemented by Intel and AMD is that the professional counterfeiter has often been able to figure out a way around it by modifying the chip physically. Today's socketed processors are much more immune to these re-marking attempts, but it is still possible, particularly because the evidence can be hidden under a heatsink. To protect yourself from purchasing a fraudulent chip, verify the specification numbers and serial numbers with Intel and AMD before you purchase. Also beware where you buy your hardware. Purchasing over online auction sites can be extremely dangerous because defrauding the purchaser is so easy. Also, traveling computer show/flea market arenas can be a hotbed of this type of activity. Finally, I recommend purchasing only "boxed" or retail-packaged versions of the Intel and AMD processors, rather than the raw OEM versions. The boxed versions are shrink-wrapped and contain a high-quality heatsink, documentation, and a 3-year warranty with the manufacturer.

Fraudulent computer components are not limited to processors. I have seen fake memory, fake mice, fake video cards, fake cache memory, counterfeit operating systems and applications, and even fake motherboards. The hardware that is faked usually works but is of inferior quality to the type it is purporting to be. For example, one of the most highly counterfeited pieces of hardware at one time was the Microsoft mouse. They originally sold for $35 wholesale, yet I could purchase cheap mice from overseas manufacturers for as little as $2.32 each. It didn't take somebody long to realize that if they made the $2 mouse look like a $35 Microsoft mouse, they could sell it for $20 and people would think they were getting a genuine article for a bargain, while the thieves ran off with a substantial profit.

PGA Chip Packaging

Variations on the pin grid array (PGA) chip packaging have been the most commonly used chip packages over the years. They were used starting with the 286 processor in the 1980s and are still used today, although not in all CPU designs. PGA takes its name from the fact that the chip has a grid-like array of pins on the bottom of the package. PGA chips are inserted into sockets, which are often of a zero insertion force (ZIF) design. A ZIF socket has a lever to allow for easy installation and removal of the chip.

Most Pentium processors use a variation on the regular PGA called staggered pin grid array (SPGA), in which the pins are staggered on the underside of the chip rather than in standard rows and columns. This was done to move the pins closer together and decrease the overall size of the chip when a large number of pins is required. Figure 3.6 shows a Pentium Pro that uses the dual-pattern SPGA (on the right) next to an older Pentium 66 that uses the regular PGA. Note that the right half of the Pentium Pro shown here has additional pins staggered among the other rows and columns.


Figure 3.6 PGA on Pentium 66 (left) and dual-pattern SPGA on Pentium Pro (right).

Older PGA variations had the processor die mounted in a cavity underneath the substrate, with the top surface facing up if you turned the chip upside down. The die was then wire-bonded to the chip package with hundreds of tiny gold wires connecting the connections at the edge of the chip with the internal connections in the package. After the wire bonding, the cavity was sealed with a metal cover. This was an expensive and time-consuming method of producing chips, so cheaper and more efficient packaging methods were designed.

Most modern processors are built on a form of flip-chip pin grid array (FC-PGA) packaging. This type still plugs into a PGA socket, but the package itself is dramatically simplified. With FC-PGA, the raw silicon die is mounted face down on the top of the chip substrate, and instead of wire bonding, the connections are made with tiny solder bumps around the perimeter of the die. The edge is then sealed with a fillet of epoxy. With the original versions of FC-PGA, you could see the backside of the raw die sitting on the chip.

Unfortunately, there were some problems with attaching the heatsink to an FC-PGA chip. The heatsink sat on the top of the die, which acted as a pedestal. If you pressed down on one side of the heatsink excessively during the installation process (such as when you were attaching the clip), you risked cracking the silicon die and destroying the chip. This was especially a problem as heatsinks became larger and heavier and the force applied by the clip became greater.

AMD decreased the risk of damage by adding rubber spacers to each corner of the chip substrate for the Athlon XP, thus preventing the heatsink from tilting excessively during installation. Still, these bumpers could compress, and it was all too easy to crack the die.

Intel revised its packaging with a newer FC-PGA2 version used in later Pentium III and all Pentium 4 processors. This incorporates a protective metal cap, dubbed a heat spreader, to protect the CPU from damage when the heatsink is attached. Ironically, the first processor for PCs to use a heat spreader was actually made by AMD for its K6 family of processors.

The Athlon 64 processor family uses a heatsink design different from the Athlon XP. On the Athlon 64 family, the heatsink is attached to a clip. The clip is then screwed to the motherboard, which helps prevent damage to the processor. The Athlon 64, Opteron, and Socket 754 versions of the Sempron also use a heat spreader on top of the processor die, enabling larger and heavier heatsinks to be installed without any potential damage to the processor core.

Future packaging directions are headed toward what is called BBUL (bumpless build-up layer) packaging. This will embed the die completely in the package; in fact, the package layers will be built up around and on top of the die, fully encapsulating it within the package. This will embed the chip die and allow for a full flat surface for attaching the heatsink, as well as shorter internal interconnections within the package.

Single Edge Contact and Single Edge Processor Packaging

Intel and AMD used cartridge- or board-based packaging for some of their processors from 1997 through 2000. This packaging was called single edge contact cartridge (SECC) or single edge processor package (SEPP) and consisted of the CPU and optional separate L2 cache chips mounted on a circuit board that looked similar to an oversized memory module and that plugged into a slot. In some cases, the boards were covered with a plastic cartridge cover.

The SEC cartridge is an innovative—if a bit unwieldy—package design that incorporates the back-side bus and L2 cache internally. It was used as a cost-effective method for integrating L2 cache into the processor before it was feasible to include the cache directly inside the processor die.

A less expensive version of the SEC is called the single edge processor (SEP) package. The SEP package is basically the same circuit board containing processor and (optional) cache, but without the fancy plastic cover. This was used mainly by the lower-cost early Celeron processors. The SEP package plugs directly into the same Slot 1 connector used by the standard Pentium II or III. Four holes on the board enable the heatsink to be installed.

Slot 1, as shown in Figure 3.7, is the connection to the motherboard and has 242 pins. AMD used the same physical slot but rotated it 180° and called it Slot A. The SEC cartridge or SEP processor is plugged into the slot and secured with a processor-retention mechanism, which is a bracket that holds it in place. There also might be a retention mechanism or support for the processor heatsink. Figure 3.8 shows the parts of the cover that make up the SEC package. Note the large thermal plate used to aid in dissipating the heat from this processor. The SEP package is shown in Figure 3.9.


Figure 3.7 Pentium II Processor Slot 1 dimensions (metric/English).


Figure 3.8 Pentium II Processor SEC package parts.


Figure 3.9 Celeron Processor SEP package front-side view.

With the Pentium III, Intel introduced a variation on the SEC packaging called single edge contact cartridge version 2 (SECC2). This new package covered only one side of the processor board with plastic and enables the heatsink to directly attach to the chip on the other side. This more direct thermal interface allowed for better cooling, and the overall lighter package was cheaper to manufacture. A newer Universal Retention System, consisting of a plastic upright stand, was required to hold the SECC2 package chip in place on the board. The Universal Retention System also worked with the older SEC package as used on most Pentium II processors, as well as the SEP package used on the slot-based Celeron processors. This made it the ideal retention mechanism for all Slot 1–based processors. AMD Athlon Slot A processors used the same retention mechanisms as Intel. Figure 3.10 shows the SECC2 package.


Figure 3.10 SECC2 packaging used in newer Pentium II and III processors.

The main reason for switching to the SEC and SEP packages in the first place was to be able to move the L2 cache memory off the motherboard and onto the processor in an economical and scalable way. This was necessary because, at the time, it was not feasible to incorporate the cache directly into the CPU core die. After building the L2 directly into the CPU die became possible, the cartridge and slot packaging were unnecessary. Because virtually all modern processors incorporate the L2 cache on-die, the processor packaging has gone back to the PGA socket form.

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