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Semiconductor Manufacturing Presents Welcome Challenge for Design and Construction Firms

Driven by record demand, the semiconductor industry is white-hot. Citing figures compiled by the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics organization, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced in January that monthly global semiconductor industry sales reached $48 billion in November 2023, an increase of 5.3% compared to November 2022’s $45.6 billion and 2.9% more than October 2023’s $46.6 billion.

“Global semiconductor sales increased on a year-to-year basis in November for the first time since August 2022, an indication that the global chip market is continuing to gain strength as we enter the new year,” said John Neuffer, SIA president and CEO. “Looking ahead, the global semiconductor market is projected to experience double-digit growth in 2024.”


This growth will require the construction of new semiconductor fabrication plants—highly complex facilities which involve precise processes that demand a wide range of considerations from construction partners to ensure optimal functionality and compliance with regulatory standards. From clean room requirements to environmental controls, there are several key points to consider when designing and building this type of facility.


Clean room requirements


The most important part of semiconductor manufacturing is maintaining a pristine clean room. Per ISO 14644-1, a clean room is “a room in which the concentration of airborne particles is controlled, and which is constructed and used in a manner to minimize the introduction, generation and retention of particles inside the room and in which other relevant parameters, e.g., temperature, humidity and pressure, are controlled as necessary.” A microscopic particle of dust can ruin a sensitive microcircuit, so these facilities must uphold stringent clean room standards.


The comprehensive online reference for semiconductor manufacturing,, indicates that a clean room environment is achieved through the use of appropriate HVAC systems and HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that maintain the correct pressurization, temperature and humidity of the clean room, as well as the circulation of continuously filtered air.


“Achieving and maintaining ultra-clean environments is critical to prevent contamination during intricate semiconductor manufacturing processes,” says Abdul​​​​ EL Baba, vice president, advanced technology, at Gray. Other design considerations include developing specialized clothing protocols for workers and optimizing process equipment layouts and workflow paths.


In semiconductor manufacturing, wafer manufacturing processes typically require a sub-Class 1 to Class 10 clean room, while assembly processes prior to encapsulation of the die require a Class 10K clean room, according to EEsemi. Post-encapsulation assembly and test processes usually require a Class 100K clean room.


Infrastructure needs


According to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, semiconductor plants require access to large plots of seismically inactive land with a sufficient and stable supply of water, electricity, skilled labor, transportation infrastructure, and opportunities for co-locating with key suppliers.


Shortages of these critical resources impact site selection and facility design.“Access to a stable and abundant water supply and energy sources plays a key role in selecting a project’s location,” says EL Baba. “Increasingly, stakeholders consider sustainable practices to address resource limitations and align with environmental goals.”


In addition to a supportive electrical grid and specialized systems for process chemicals and gases, ultra-pure water systems are essential for rinsing and cleaning semiconductor materials without introducing impurities. “Construction and engineering teams address specialized infrastructure needs by implementing robust utilities with systems for thorough water purification and precise gas delivery,” EL Baba adds.

"Achieving and maintaining ultra-clean environments is critical to prevent contamination during intricate semiconductor manufacturing processes."
Abdul EL Baba, Vice President, Advanced Technology

Regulatory compliance


According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), most environmental permits for U.S. fab construction are granted by state and local governments, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issuing less than 5% of the total nationwide. It is a complex process; while some permits are required by state or local law, others are required by federal law and must be implemented in coordination with federal agencies.


“Companies face regulatory challenges in obtaining permits for hazardous materials, waste disposal, and meeting environmental standards,” EL Baba says. Securing these permits can significantly impact a new fab’s construction schedule.


Compliance with regulations governing air emissions, water quality, and waste management is mandatory for fabs to operate legally, and proposals to construct semiconductor fabrication facilities are subject to lengthy environmental reviews. Manufacturers and facility designers and builders must develop environmental impact assessments, waste minimization plans, and records that demonstrate adherence to health and safety regulations.


CSIS notes that fabs have a large impact on the environment, as they consume large quantities of energy and fresh water and produce thousands of tons of hazardous waste every year. For this reason, they are subject to strict environmental reviews, as documented in a 2017 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) titled “Ensuring Long-Term U.S. Leadership in Semiconductors.”


Zoning and land use


To successfully launch a new fab facility, manufacturers and their construction partners must be keenly aware of local zoning laws, permit requirements, and any existing concerns among community members.


According to EL Baba, developing semiconductor fabs often requires careful consideration of land use policies, zoning restrictions, and community engagement to ensure compatibility with surrounding areas. Community engagement can mitigate opposition and facilitate smoother project execution. Balancing the needs of the facility with the concerns of surrounding communities—such as noise levels, traffic impact, waste disposal protocols, and visual aesthetics—is important for obtaining necessary approvals and avoiding conflicts. Even then, CSIS notes that local governments sometimes do not possess the bureaucratic resources to promptly process all the required permitting, which can slow fab construction.

"Companies face regulatory challenges in obtaining permits for hazardous materials, waste disposal, and meeting environmental standards."
Abdul EL Baba, Vice President, Advanced Technology

Overall, designing and building a semiconductor fabrication facility involves a multi-faceted approach that considers the full spectrum of internal and external requirements and works to fulfill these in a safe, timely manner. As demand continues to rise, firms across the U.S. are adapting to the challenges of building these unique facilities, garnering valuable experience that improves the efficiency and quality of their design and construction services.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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