When failure is not an option - vibration control and semiconductor manufacturing

Vibration control is a crucial ingredient in semiconductor manufacturing, but this niche area of engineering often goes under the radar. Here, Adam Fox, director of Mason UK, the exclusive UK agent for Mason Industries, explains the need for quality engineered solutions for these vast manufacturing sites.

The development of advanced semiconductors will be essential in producing meaningful advances in artificial intelligence and recent supply chain issues are forcing Western governments to invest in sovereign capability. Companies like Intel are looking to expand into Europe, with a new manufacturing plant due to open in Magdeburg, Germany in 2027.

Although these manufacturing sites can be vast, most of the equipment is not directly used in the manufacture of silicon chips. Fabrication plants require an extensive range of heating, cooling and filtration systems. This plant equipment makes up approximately 90 per cent of the equipment located at a typical fab.

This equipment ensures the correct temperature, humidity level and particulate level for the optimal production of chips. However, mechanical systems and HVAC systems all generate vibration which can disrupt sensitive precision manufacturing processes and interfere with chip production. Vibration control is therefore key to the smooth production of chips.

In this highly specialised area, the specification serves as the blueprint for managing the construction of these facilities. For other applications, contractors might try to save money by deviating from the specification or favouring cheaper suppliers. For chip manufacturing, compromises on quality and departures from the specification, are not an option as the cost of failure is so high.

Mason was recently brought on board to provide effective vibration isolation at a fab in Ireland, one of Europe’s largest manufacturing sites. Despite the scale of the project, we also took on significant responsibility for the design. Although this arrangement is unusual, the extra engagement was an important factor in the contractor’s decision to work with us.

Engineering challenges

Isolating against vibration involves a system of specialised products that interrupt and absorb the path for vibration transmission. Spring mounts are specified for applications where low frequency (sub 8Hz) vibrations are present. In total, this project required a staggering 3,800 mounts. In addition, Mason supplied 1600 acoustic hangers, from which pipework and ducts were suspended, as well as 400 pipe connectors.

Correctly maintaining the pipework and duct runs at a site like this requires addressing other factors like thermal expansion or wind loading. If the engineering solutions are designed solely for vibration control, but do not take into account these other factors, then maintenance engineers will likely encounter problems with pipes wanting to move and not being free to do so.

Many of the products must therefore be custom-engineered for this unique application. The mounts, for example, are designed with customised housing that is more robust than for an off-the-shelf product. A lot of detail goes into planning and ensuring each mount is installed in the correct location, a massive logistical undertaking in which we were assisted by a local agent, Asgard Engineering.

There was an additional agreement with the contractors whereby Mason would assist with the installation as well as the design, given the critical importance of getting this right. Attention to detail is key as even millimetres matter. Along with colleagues, I was on site regularly assisting with installation, training staff and carrying out inspections.

Adjusting a mount or a hanger incorrectly can lead to load in the wrong place and prevent the isolator from working, so the team’s experience was useful in ensuring everything would work as intended. Without this expertise, you risk the possibility of manufacturing downtime further along the line.

Precision engineering requires high quality vibration isolation and chip manufacturing is no exception. In an industry where the cost of downtime is excessive, the fabrication plants that produce chips must be able to operate uninterrupted. Ensuring that the correct vibration control solutions are in place is essential in the maintenance of pipework and ducting at these fabs.

With the right products and solutions in place, maintenance engineers should not have to worry about equipment downtime or pipework being damaged as a result of insufficient attention being given to factors such as wind loading and thermal movement. However, this is a niche area of engineering, where products need to be custom-engineered and experienced engineers are required to carry out regular inspections.