Built in record time

By John Lungo and Ramin Rofagha

In this era of mega fabs and the astronomical costs associated with building ISO Class 5 cleanrooms, why would a young company undertake the challenge and risk of building a fab?

VSK Photonics (Lake Forest, CA) carefully considered the answer to this question as it set out on a mission to deliver high-performance, cost-effective optoelectronic integrated circuit components and modules for the high-speed telecommunications market.

In-house fab vs. outsourcing

Construction costs of a facility's shell with de-ionized water, process chilled water and process gases can easily exceed $2,000 per square foot. That does not include purchasing and installing process equipment or the day-to-day operating expenses, so it is easy to see why a small company would be tempted to purchase devices from an established foundry. But after lengthy analysis, VSK chose to build its own fab.

Once VSK made the decision, it set out to achieve this objective in less than five months, starting in September 2001, and with a limited budget. The first step was to build a 2,800 square foot ISO Class 6 fab, and the facilities specialist was mandated to achieve the following objectives in record time:

  • Find an appropriate building and design modifications to it;
  • obtain all of the required permits and zoning approvals;
  • select and appoint contractors for the construction and building facilities;
  • specify and order the wafer-processing equipment;
  • hire wafer-fab engineers and technicians.

A myriad of regulatory issues also needed to be taken into account, including: zoning, air quality, waste water permits, hazardous-materials disposal permits, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ID number, as well as chemical classification and architectural reviews by the fire authorities. Latitude for future upgrades to meet all of the wafer fab's facility requirements, such as water and electrical service, were also part of the plan.

During the design stage, long lead items such as air handlers were ordered. Placing these orders before the building had been cleared of regulatory issues posed a significant risk—most of the equipment ordered was building-specific. This is where VSK relied heavily on the previous experience and expertise of their facilities specialist, who had gone through this process before and was familiar with regulatory issues.

Beyond VSK's control, a few essential pieces of equipment and material, such as HVAC and ductwork, were delayed by three weeks. Since the schedule was so tightly set, leaving little room for error, even a week's delay had a serious impact on the timeline. Additionally, the scope of the project in certain areas, such as process piping and electrical work, kept expanding beyond the actual fab to other areas, including test and packaging areas. This further reduced the possibility of finishing the fab on time.

Under five months, under budget

Originally, the design called for an ISO Class 6 cleanroom with some critical areas being Class 5; the timeline from the start of construction to the first wafer start was five months. VSK completed construction in less than five months, the entire cleanroom was built to Class 5 standards, and the whole project came in 20 percent under budget.

The timing of the project was ideal on a number of levels. Due to the poor business climate at the time, contractors and equipment manufacturers were more open to negotiations than ever before, allowing for significant cost savings. Furthermore, process equipment order lead times had been reduced substantially compared with a similar period just a year earlier. These factors, along with the expertise of the facilities specialist and the collaboration of many vendors and contractors, facilitated the achievement of an aggressive construction schedule.

This timeline shows the different phases of construction, which officials at VSK say was completed in “record time.” The chart is courtesy of VSK Photonics.
Click here to enlarge image


John Lungo is director of semiconductor operations and Ramin Rofagha is a product line manager at VSK Photonics (LakeForest, CA).


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