An audio tour of the birthplace of your technology

Workers inside the cleanroom of GlobalFoundries in upstate New York

Every electronic device you've ever loved began its life as a semiconductor wafer, a disc of silicon, upon which are sketched the tiny patterns that make microchips work.

Chips are born in rather bizarre maternity wards: giant, multi-billion dollar so-called "cleanrooms," where humans and robots work side by side.

These cleanrooms have a culture all their own, starting with the creepy white suits that workers wear so they won’t contaminate the product.

Take a tour with Marketplace's Mark Garrison as he zipped himself into a bunny suit to acquire rare access inside one of the world's newest semiconductor cleanrooms, the GlobalFoundries facility in upstate New York. 

Mark Garrison: You and I are disgusting compared to the GlobalFoundries cleanroom. My gear gets especially dirty looks.

In the microscopic world of chips, a speck of dust is like an oil spill. So cleanliness here makes Howard Hughes look like a Garbage Pail Kid.

Edward Cody: A small particle could contaminate months’ worth of production at one time.

Before I can go in, logistics manager Edward Cody makes sure every millimeter of me is covered with layers of suit, hood, gloves, glasses, boots and mask.

The door opens and we’re inside a sci-fi landscape the size of six football fields. It’s mostly giant robots and machines. The humans working here call them tools, as if they’re sold at Home Depot.

Cody: That scanner down there, which is about a $60 million wrench.

And there are rows of them. Just the machines we’re standing around cost more than Iron Man 3. This is an $8 billion dollar facility, and counting. It’s full of people in white bunny suits, looking all the same to me.

Technician Shawn Bukowski says he knows his cleanroom coworkers by their eyes.

Shawn Bukowski: Even the little bit that they show, their eyeballs. You know right away who’s who.

Cody shows off a semiconductor wafer in progress, a thin, shiny disc the size of a personal pizza.

Cody: There’s thousands and thousands of little patterns in there.

It’ll be chopped up and put into your smartphones, appliances and more. To workers, the destination is a mystery, by design.

Cody: We really don’t want anybody to know what that’s being used for. We don’t label things because of that.

A strange land of secrecy, spotlessness and crazy outfits, where all your tech is born. In Malta, New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.


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