No kindergarten sketches of stick-figure families. No photographs of the kids and the family dog. Not even a coffee mug in sight. Just an odorless "clean room" with six-foot-tall machines that manufacture computer memory chips.
Every day, about 600 workers at the Dominion Semiconductor chip plant in Manassas put on nylon "bunny suits" for 12-hour shifts in the plant's "clean rooms." These suits, which go from head to toe, are like pajamas with feet and must be worn inside the clean room.
The hyper-clean environment is necessary for the production of computer memory chips the size of thumbnails. These chips are arranged on eight-inch silicon "wafers" like sheets of stamps, with roughly 300 chips on each wafer. If even a speck of dust gets on the wafer, it can distort and ruin all its chips.
If employees need to use the restroom or eat lunch, they change out of their nylon suits and leave the clean room. Experienced plant workers can get in and out of their suits in as little as 30 seconds.
Dominion, owned jointly by International Business Machines Corp. and Toshiba Corp., is one of two Virginia semiconductor plants that make computer memory chips. Currently it has 900 employees, but managers plan to hire roughly 300 more by the end of 2000. The plant makes millions of chips each year.
CAPTION: Walls coated with special paint so static charge does not accumulate and interfere with the chip-manufacturing process.
CAPTION: A robotic arm behind sealed glass carries out the etching process that carves trenches in the silicon wafers. This step of the 400 steps involved in making a computer memory chip (pictured) brings a boat of wafers to the robotic arm unit.
CAPTION: A wafer "boat" that holds 24 eight-inch wafers. It is transported by hand or on a rail (not shown here) from one clean-room workstation to another. There are currently 10 workstations.
CAPTION: Panels emit air that forces floating particles through ducts on the floor, changing the air six times per minute.
CAPTION: Protective suits keep hairs and other body materials out of environment. Nylon fabrics prevent particles from collecting on clothing and contaminating the chips.
CAPTION: Air ducts through which airborne particles are pushed out of the clean room. There is less than one particle per cubic foot in the clean room's air.