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Contractors have set up a batch plant on site to provide concrete for Intel's new Hillsboro factory, D1X. The new factory is immediately adjacent to Intel's existing research facility, D1D, so contractors must tread carefully so utility work and construction vibrations don't disrupt the sensitive equipment next door.
Scot Wymer is conducting a kind of symphony.
Beginning at 5:15 a.m., six days a week, the Hoffman Construction Co. superintendent arrives at a work site in Hillsboro and for the next 12 or 13 hours coordinates the efforts of hundreds of construction workers and craftspeople who file in after him.
Fifteen cranes tower above Intel's Ronler Acres campus near Hillsboro Stadium, building the chip maker's $3 billion research factory. A steady stream of cement mixers and gravel trucks pass by, single file, creating the steady roar that drives one of the biggest construction projects in Oregon's history.
Intel's new factory, D1X, is single-handedly boosting the regional economy by reviving Oregon's moribund construction industry.
D1X by the numbers
Cost: $3 billion
Concrete: 150,000 to 200,000 cubic yards
Excavation: 500,000 to 1 million cubic yards of dirt
Steel and rebar: 45,000 tons
Construction workers: 6,000 to 8,000 over the two-year project
Long-term jobs: 800-1000, starting when D1X opens in 2013
And when it opens in 2013, the factory, or fab in the industry's lingo, will incubate the semiconductor industry's most advanced technology for at least a decade. Eight times larger than the biggest Walmart, D1X and its two support buildings will host breakthroughs still taking shape in engineers' imaginations.
To make those dreams come true, Wymer's crew is putting in 35,000 hours a week. And this is just the beginning. The project will occupy a small city of carpenters, pipe fitters and other craftspeople, as many as 5,000 at the peak of construction.
The dirt from excavation alone could fill more than 30,000 dump trucks. A mammoth crane, with an 800-foot-boom, arrives this summer to lift loads of as much as 2,600 tons.
"We get to do things we like to do faster, with bigger toys," Wymer said. "There are very few projects in the world you get to do this on. You hate to be left out."
Intel builds factories the same way it builds its chips: "Design it, design it once and then just copy," says Ravi Sharma Intel's director of global construction.
And with Intel's factories, much like its microprocessors, the work always starts in Hillsboro.
In a finely honed process called "copy exactly," Intel's Oregon researchers perfect each new generation of microprocessor at the company's existing research factory, an 8-year-old fab called D1D.
Factories in Arizona, New Mexico, Israel, Ireland and China then duplicate what the Hillsboro engineers created, right down to the air inside the fab, to prevent production mistakes and ensure that every chip performs just like every other.
"D1X is quite unique," Sharma said, "from the perspective that we are setting a design for the future fabs at Intel."
To make that factory, Intel will summon as many as 8,000 construction workers to Ronler Acres. Most come from Oregon or elsewhere in the Northwest, because workers here have built fabs before.
Intel made Oregon its research hub after winning tax breaks and changes in state tax law that exempt it from most property and income taxes. It will pay ordinary taxes on D1X's building, but the equipment inside -- which comprises most of the facility's cost-- will be exempt from property taxes that most other businesses pay.
And since Intel sells nearly all its chips to computer manufacturers outside Oregon, its profits are not subject to state income taxes.
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Work on D1X started in February, and it's already showing up in Portland jobs data. The construction industry, clobbered by the collapse of the housing market during the recession, added 1,000 jobs in the Portland area last month.
"If you're talking even a thousand jobs on one project, that will have a substantial impact on overall construction employment in the Portland area," said David Cooke, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department. "The construction jobs are very important to the overall economic picture over the short term."
Those workers will haul away up to a million yards of dirt as Intel excavates for D1X's foundation and brings the site level with D1D, the fab next door.
Of that, 150,000 cubic yards are headed just up the road, to SolarWorld's Hillsboro property. That company is contemplating a second factory someday and needs to elevate its property to ensure proper drainage.
The castoffs will raise 4 1/2 acres of SolarWorld's site by 21 feet.
Intel is building something extraordinarily large so it can manufacture something ridiculously small.
View full sizeRandy L. Rasmussen/The Oregonian
Fanatically secret about its technologies, the chip maker won't talk in any detail about the design of D1X. Ask, and you'll get a polite smile. Then silence.
But Intel doesn't deny the obvious. D1X is 60 percent larger than its vintage 2003 predecessor, D1D.
"It'll look taller and it'll look wider," Sharma concedes. "There's nothing I can hide about it. I wish it could look the same and just be bigger inside."
Industry experts look at the size of D1X and see two things: technology and economics.
The basic rule of semiconductor science is that tinier is better. Generally speaking, microprocessors grow more powerful and become more efficient as their circuitry shrinks.
At a certain point, though, the laws of physics start to get in the way. Individual features are just a few atoms thick, thinner than the waves of light that chip manufacturers use to create them. Millions could fit on the head of a pin.
To print these microscopic circuit patterns, Intel and other chip companies have to perform "tricks" to bend, twist and shift the light, according to Dean Freeman, vice president for Gartner Research in California.
New production tools, in particular one called extreme ultraviolet, can circumvent some of the trickery and make production more straightforward, he said, at least for the next generation of circuitry. But these "EUV" machines are titanic.
Ravi Sharma, Intel's director of global construction.
"It basically takes an entire 747 to fly one of these new tools out," Freeman said. "And if you don't balance it right, you can't get the 747 off the ground."
Intel won't say when, or if, it will use EUV or other big manufacturing tools in D1X. All Sharma will say is that the company wants to be versatile.
"Part of the reason the building is bigger is it allows us the flexibility to make changes as the technology evolves," he said.
One thing Intel has said is that D1X will be able to accommodate larger silicon wafers, the foundation upon which computer chips are built.
Intel and other manufacturers want to move from the current industry standard, dinner-plate-size 300-millimeter wafers, to larger, more efficient 450-millimeter wafers. Some estimates suggest that could shave nearly a third off the cost of each chip.
Tool manufacturers are resisting the expensive changeover, and it's not clear when 450 mm will be ready. But when it is, Intel will need a bigger fab to house larger tools and the automated systems that guide the wafers through the manufacturing process, according to Trevor Yancey, vice president of the research firm IC Insights.
"It's just mind-boggling how much money we're talking about," Yancey said, and even when you're spending $3 billion, "every cent counts."
Intel knows that better than anyone, of course. It's a huge company, which reported record sales of $35 billion last year. But the cost of those sales is big new projects like D1X to keep the technology moving forward.
"There's a lot of money, a lot of zeroes, to be accounted for," said Intel's Sharma.
A team of project managers tracks 30,000 to 40,000 individual items, carefully ordered so that each job is done, and done in the right order.
"You're not building a building. You're building a machine," Sharma said. "Every component of this machine has to work together."
-- Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; phone: 503-294-7699