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Intel’s Secret Weapon for Automation Success: Standardization

May 11, 2018
The mega chipmaker can drop new production equipment into its factories and be up and running in five minutes, thanks to a maniacal focus and investment in building and implementing standards.

Raleigh, NC—Steve Meyer might just be the biggest cheerleader of standards on the planet. But when your company builds huge wafer fabs that cause whole countries to run out of concrete during construction and fill them with $100M machine tools, you obviously need to find a way to get incredible utilization out of that equipment.

Standards were the path that Intel took to achieve that goal.

“If we hadn’t doubled down on standards, we’d probably have gone bankrupt,” explained Meyer, speaking to a roomful of manufacturing executives at the M&T Conference this week In Raleigh. A Senior Principal Engineer in Manufacturing IT at Intel, Meyer has spent the last 22 years helping Intel evolve its operations from what were essentially manual processes to its current state that is approaching 100% automation.

His enthusiasm for standards stems from the tangible benefits Intel has reaped from a strict adherence to over 900 standards developed by the semiconductor industry, with the distinct goal of increasing industry efficiency and improving customer satisfaction.

“We standardize everything,” Meyer flatly asserted, going on to explain that the standards Intel follows cover everything from equipment attributes and the robotic transfer between equipment modules to communications and performance measurements.

A keystone of what Meyer terms “pervasive standardization” is something called the FOUP, which stand for “Front opening unified pod.” It is the carrier used to transport all production and test materials and which interfaces with load ports throughout the facility.

Thanks to standardized parallel I/O interface devices, locations, and protocols, every hand-off is the same. (Hence, the ability to install new equipment nearly seamlessly.)

Each FOUP carrier has a unique ID and RFID tag and a reader is located at every load port. Readers are also installed at every place a FOUP could land in order to track the carrier’s movement through the process.

Intel has also standardized equipment behavior, for connecting to, controlling, and extracting data for each production tool, which facilitates the flow of information through the factory.

Likewise, performance measures are the same for all equipment, including productive time, standby time, engineering time, and scheduled and unscheduled downtime.

At this point in Meyer’s talk, someone in the audience piped up that he didn’t work in an industry that had any standards and he couldn’t see how they could approach anything like what Intel had done.

Meyer acknowledged that Intel had a distinct advantage due to the semiconductor industry’s investment in developing standards, but that he thinks these standards could be applied to almost any industry.

And, in fact, one of the reasons Intel is out talking about what it’s doing is to share best practices with companies outside of semiconductor manufacturing.“All of the standards that the semiconductor industry uses are online, and I think they can serve as a good reference and education for any manufacturer,” he said. “You can find out a wide range of useful information from how to structure lock-out pins on equipment to everything on communication standards, designed to move fast on the control plane and in data extraction.”

Check out all 900 standards for the semiconductor industry.

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