Tiny Silicon Wafers Generate Big Money

Given 10 guesses to name a silicon wafer manufacturer ranking among the 20 largest in the world, odds are the average person would soon be asking for another 10 guesses. Few of the top businesses in the industry are remotely close to being a household name, but consumers around the planet owe these tech giants a debt of gratitude. Their silicon wafers house the brains inside memory sticks, MP3 players and televisions, not to mention computers, the security chips in the current generation of credit cards and dozens of other gadgets used in everyday life.

Big Growth Drives Revenue

The circuitry atop silicon wafers is barely the size of a small fingernail but possesses enough capacity to operate large pieces of sophisticated machinery. Additionally, the semiconductor equipment manufacturers’ industry association reported that more than 83 million square feet of wafers were shipped in 2018, driving revenue up 31 percent from the preceding year.

A silicon wafer manufacturer producing a finished printed wafer may charge up to 100 times the cost of the unpolished, blank wafer it starts with. That can translate to $50,000 for the most complex circuitry designs (“microlithography”) by the silicon wafer manufacturer. That seemingly makes for a nice return on investment from silica sand, a not particularly rare raw material, but the manufacturing process is a complex one.

Complex Manufacturing Processes

Silicon ingots can take between a week and a month to grow after the raw silicon is taken to its melting point and seeded with a single silicon crystal. As the seed crystal is slowly pulled up, silicon atoms deposit on the bottom surface to extend the lattice that ultimately hosts the circuitry.

The nearly finished product is then sliced into wafers less than a millimeter thick and polished in a clean room. From there, circuit patterns are printed and stacked atop the surface. Following final testing, the wafer is cut into tiny rectangles to separate copies of the chip.

The need for electronic gadgets is not going anywhere anytime soon. Thankfully, the industry’s best silicon wafer manufacturers are more than happy to continue the complex manufacturing process required to create enough silicon wafers to meet the current demand.

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