WORLD / America

When Intel says 'Copy Exactly,' it means it
Updated: 2006-05-30 09:41

Intel Corp., the world's biggest chip maker, is unique in the way it rolls out new manufacturing methods, perfecting it in a laboratory and then painstakingly duplicating it at factories around the world.

A man walks past an advertisement board for Intel'in this Feburary 10, 2006 file photo. Intel Corp., the world's largest chip maker, said on Tuesday it would spearhead an initiative to sell cheaper computers in India to increase usage and desktop penetration in Asia's third-largest economy. [Reuters]

The strategy, first employed in the mid-1980s, is called "Copy Exactly." And the Santa Clara, California-based company means it.

Engineers strive to duplicate even the subtlest of manufacturing variables, from the color of a worker's gloves to the type of fluorescent lights in the building. Employees from around the world spend more than a year at a development lab in Oregon learning their small piece of the new recipe so they can bring it back to their home factory.

The idea, says Dave Aires, plant manager for Intel's Fab 12 factory in Chandler, Ariz., is to capture the infinite number of intangibles that have allowed a process to succeed in plants that have already brought it online.

"It's not just there's a specification or a recipe or a program you put into a machine," he says. "It also is what the human being does and how they interact with the machine."

Copy Exactly was implemented under the watch of Intel's current chairman, Craig Barrett. In the mid-1980s, as Japanese companies began flooding the market with high-quality memory chips that cost less than Intel's, Barrett was brought in to make the factories more efficient.

One of the biggest contributions from Barrett, then Intel's No. 2 executive under Andy Grove, was Copy Exactly.

"It turned us from what I would call an also-ran manufacturer to a pretty good manufacturer," Barrett says.

The extremes to which Intel engineers go to control the precise conditions in its dozen or so factories has become legendary.

About 10 years ago, Tom Franz, now an Intel vice president in charge of manufacturing, was trying to figure out why one plant in Arizona wasn't hitting the benchmarks achieved at another in Oregon, where the recipe was first cooked up.

Then it hit him: Arizona's desert air was so much drier than the air in Portland, and the engineers in Chandler were skipping several steps taken in Oregon to dehumidify.

Intel scientists theorized that the dehumidifying, besides removing water, also eliminated impurities such as ammonia. So engineers began adding water vapor to the Chandler air, essentially making Portland air, and then subjected it to the same dehumidifiers used in Oregon.

"It shows the level of things you've got to worry about when you try to make something as complex as the chips we make," Franz says.

Under Copy Exactly, researchers spend more than four years perfecting a new manufacturing technique in one of Intel's development factories in Hillsboro, Ore. Once they are satisfied with the results, they work to meticulously import every last detail to half a dozen or so chip factories around the world.

The technique contrasts with those at other chip makers, which tend to have only one or two factories. At Advanced Micro Devices Inc., for instance, a new manufacturing process is developed in a small portion of a factory and, once it is perfected, it is rolled out to the rest of the plant.

Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, says the technique is rooted in Intel's corporate culture and there's no scientific evidence that it gives the company an edge.

"Other companies snicker a little bit at Intel going to such lengths to copy exactly," he says.

But VLSI Research analyst Dan Hutcheson says there's a good reason for the company's fixation with details such as the color and maker of paint in its fabs. Paints, like many other objects, can emit contaminants that alter the manufacturing process, Hutcheson says.

"All Intel cares about is that a chip comes out and is electronically the same as every other chip coming out."