StMicroelectronics, the silicon wafer factory where Brianza looks like California

They are called wafers and the layman immediately thinks of biscuits, but here we are talking about something else. Wafers are silicon disks with a diameter of 20 or 30 centimeters, as thin as a CD-ROM. Those who matter in this story are the greatest. Microchips, or semi-conductors, are built on wafers of silicon, so called precisely because of the ability of silicon to conduct and not to conduct, with characteristics included between those of conductors and insulators. In recent years we have discovered the importance of semiconductors because they were in short supply, even if now the shortage is about to end. It has been explained to us in every way that they are used to do practically everything we use in our day, smartphones, small appliances, cars, magnetic cards (in fact at a certain point they began to give us health cards without microchips), but also satellites. We have therefore seen how central they are on a geopolitical level, in the global dispute between America and China, and why the main battlefield is Taiwan, which produces half of the world’s microchips. In the middle, as always, there is Europe, its need to make itself as less dependent as possible on the giants, even in terms of microchips.

Italian-French public control

Here we see clearly how the immanent contradiction of Europe is at the same time what makes Europe necessary: ​​it is certain that France and Italy are nations with their own and often conflicting interests, that reduction ad unum prohibitive, but at the same time, in order to survive, they have to come together in a bunch of fundamental things in the economic and technological fields. The sisterhood comes from history and to perpetuate it the most stringent current events, and no dispute between governments can (should) discolor it. And here we return to silicon wafers. Italy and France are together in StMicroelectronics, which was actually born in 1987 from the merger between the Italian SGS Microelettronica and the French Thomson Semiconducteurs. The holding that controls StMicroelectronics, held 50% by our Ministry of Economy and 50% by FT1CI, which belongs to Banque publique d’investissement. Strict public control in a strategic sector, very bi-state joint venture in the command but listed in Paris, Milan and New York, support from the European Investment Bank when necessary (last loan of 600 million, March ’22).

The heart of Brianza like California

An exemplary case of European industrial policy adapted to the times. Yes, but the wafers? In the StMicroelectronics plant in Agrate Brianza, a stone’s throw from Milaninaugurated a few months ago AG300, the production line for 300 mm ones. A two billion investment that will make the group even stronger in household appliances, chargers, light bulbs, robots and factory automation, in short, in the automotive and industrial sectors, as the experts say. Expert Lello Naso del Only 24 Hours, the Italian journalist who follows the sector more constantly. AG300, he explains, will be used to calibrate newly launched machines in a long journey that will bring the plant to full use in 2026, when eight thousand wafers will be produced per week, with intermediate milestones of two thousand pieces at the end of 2023 and four thousand in 2024 In 2026, the microchip crisis that has paralyzed the industry in the last two years will be largely overcome – analysts expect a return to normality at the end of 2023 – but StM will have increased production to meet a constantly growing demand. Nose entered the plant and his description seems like a dispatch from California, instead the heart of Brianza: Going through the turnstiles and leaving behind the first plant that houses the 200 mm wafer line, on the left you enter the new building that houses the 300 mm line. a building of 23,000 square metres, which distributes the systems over three floors, for a total of 65,000 metres. The exterior is more reminiscent of a large research center or a building used for digital services than a factory. Glass and aluminium, with the reverberation of light giving a sea water green color and reflecting the surrounding environment. Around, in the avenues – Agrate occupies 245,000 square meters distributed over three different buildings – employees swarm during their lunch break.

The prodigy of technology

Very small transistors are built on Brianza wafers, to optimize the management of the electrical signal. The size of Agrate’s transistors can reach 45 nanometers, 45 millionths of a millimetre. Inside each transistor wind up to 2.5 kilometers of wires (yes, that’s 2.5 kilometers) through which the electrical impulses that make the microchips work and, consequently, the objects to which they are applied. To get from silicon to the microchip, two conditions are needed: avoid vibrations and impurities. And therefore: absolute stability given by 1,500 reinforced concrete pillars at a depth of 15 metres, and three million cubic meters of air recirculate every hour inside the clean room where production takes place. White overalls, gloves, goggles and shoes. No surface of the body, except a small part of the face, or clothing comes into contact with the air or silicon. Not even an infinitesimal speck of dust can contaminate wafers. To complete a wafer of silicon it takes three months, machines measuring 2.5 by 3.5 meters and lithographic islands up to 12 metres, all equipment that can cost up to 30 million euros. Each 12-inch wafer contains hundreds of thousands of microchips, twice as many 8-inch disks. Each car, say, contains about three thousand: they are the ones who make us brake, turn on the arrow, turn on the lights. A prodigy of technology, yet, notes the envoy of the Sun, there is no inventor of the microchip production process, an engineer of the factory. a continuous work in progress that takes place in all laboratories and factories around the world. For this reason, he explains, investments in research are gigantic.

The European challenge

In Italy alone, StM has invested two billion in Agrate and €730 million in Catania for a silicon carbide wafer production line. Intel will invest up to 11 billion. The EU (43 billion by 2030), the US (52 billion dollars) and China (69.7 billion), have deployed multi-year support plans for companies investing in the sector. In 2022 StM expects revenues of 16.10 billion dollars with a growth of 26.2% and a gross margin of 47.3%. So here it is Europe jostling to make its way through the bullies, and not let itself take its breath away. If Europe is small, let alone its little nations alone in the battle of microchips. In Agrate Brianza, certainly, Europe is not small at all.

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StMicroelectronics, the silicon wafer factory where Brianza looks like California

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