Industry Article

Protecting Critical Power Supplies With 24/7 Chip Production

January 28, 2024 by Danel Turk, ABB

As semiconductor shortages cause disruption worldwide, production facilities are being commissioned to meet demand. Uptime is crucial, as these facilities must run around the clock to fill backlogs and future orders. This article examines the electrification specification required to protect critical power supplies and keep semiconductor production rolling.

Semiconductors (chips) are the powerhouses behind everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles—and even ChatGPT. With chip demand set to rise over the coming years due to online streaming, the growth of AI, and electric vehicle demand, McKinsey predicts the market for these high-value materials could reach $1 trillion by 2030.



ABB's Collaborative Operations for Electrical Systems—CLOSER.


The Chip Shortage

Traditionally, semiconductors have been made in Taiwan, which produces over 60 percent. That is until COVID-19 exposed the supply vulnerabilities inherent in having semiconductors produced almost exclusively in Taiwan, with local disruption resulting in a global chip shortage. In response, the construction of semiconductor fabrication plants—commonly known as fabs—is ramping up worldwide.

In its latest World Fab Forecast report, SEMI estimates the global semiconductor industry would spend more than $500 billion on 84 new fabs by 2024, with more than half having begun construction in the last two years. In 2023 alone, semiconductor companies built a record 33 fabs, ten more plants than in 2022, nearly doubling projects started in 2020 and 2019.

This has been driven not only by the pandemic fallout but also by the geopolitical climate, with U.S., European, and Asian governments offering incentives to increase local production to ensure the semiconductors keeping our smartphones, chatbots, and electric vehicles running can be made closer to home.

However, with skills shortages delaying the launch dates of some operations, semiconductor manufacturers have little room for error. If they are to clear the backlog caused by the chip shortage, fulfill future orders, and protect their investments, constant uptime is critical.

This means not only a reliable, resilient electrification specification to protect critical power supplies and keep operations rolling in the event of a voltage sag or a power outage but also an accompanying digital layer that ensures distribution equipment can perform to its full potential.


Energy-Intensive Processes

Maintaining the high temperatures, humidity, and air quality required for semiconductor fabs requires energy-intensive HVAC installations. In addition, equipment such as lithography systems and deposition tools use high-energy sources, such as lasers, plasma, and high-powered lamps.

For example, extreme ultraviolet lithography systems, the bus-sized machines needed to make the world’s most advanced semiconductors, consist of 100,000 separate components and are rated to consume about 1 MW of electricity—approximately 10 times more than previous generations.

The reliability of the electricity powering all these processes is essential. Any supply issues—from a voltage sag to a power outage—can disrupt operations, with extremely costly consequences. For instance, in March 2018, a 3-minute outage at Samsung’s Pyeongtaek NAND memory chip fabrication plant affected 3.5 percent of the monthly global NAND flash supply.

Investing in a reliable distribution package comprising hardware, software, and servicing, can help reduce this unplanned downtime, avoid unforeseen manufacturing costs, and improve process efficiency and productivity. The good news is that even the most comprehensive electrical distribution infrastructure will generally come in at around two to five percent of the total cost of constructing a fab.


Protecting Fabs From Downtime

The foundation of a fab’s distribution infrastructure is the copper and steel of a resilient and reliable switchgear solution. This acts as a central point of control, ensuring that power is safely and efficiently delivered to key equipment and processes within the fab and safeguarding against electrical faults, such as short circuits or overloads.

This can be combined with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for greater protection against costly downtime. The most advanced—and an industry first—is ABB’s next-generation medium-voltage (MV) UPS, HiPerGuard. Zero Instruction Set Computer (ZISC) architecture, which allows for mass processing of simple data, makes it a flexible solution for critical power facilities needing higher reliability and efficiency.

The MV design approach provides increased reliability with larger protected load blocks, lower switchgear count, and the operating processes of MV systems. Installing the power protection at the MV level provides the most energy-efficient configuration, as the lower currents result in smaller cables and reduced losses.

HiPerGuard’s 98 percent efficiency could reduce carbon emissions by 1,245 tons over 15 years. HiPerGuard is also modular to build solutions from 2,5 MW up to 25 MW.


ABB's HiPerGuard medium voltage UPS delivers 98 percent efficiency.


With the semiconductor manufacturing industry expected to consume 237 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity globally (or roughly Australia’s total electricity consumption in 2021) by 2030, the origin and efficiency of the energy used in fabs is something operators must pay close attention to.

According to Greenpeace East Asia, no major semiconductor manufacturers, display manufacturers, or final assembly companies have issued climate commitments to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, but they will not be able to avoid doing so indefinitely.

Looking ahead, we not only predict a greater focus on energy efficiency but also increased investments in renewable energy and energy storage technologies among semiconductor manufacturers. Many end customers are already asking semiconductor companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Achieving this will need widespread collaboration across the sector, with the development of new technologies and new ways of thinking that fabs will need to embrace.


Optimizing Processes and Extending Equipment Life

The final element of a full electrification specification for semiconductor fabs is a digital layer that wraps around the switchgear solution and the UPS, allowing engineers to monitor the performance and efficiency of the various components and processes within the fab and make informed decisions to improve them.

Digitally enabled switchgear, integrated with smart sensors, allows operators to capture and collate data that can be used to plan maintenance, reduce outages and onsite interventions, and extend asset life.

By monitoring equipment day and night, any anomalies in performance can be highlighted very quickly, and maintenance can be scheduled before potential downtime occurs, ensuring continuity of supply. This sort of predictive maintenance can also extend the life of equipment, protecting manufacturers’ assets and keeping them operational and running at their optimum for longer. As AI and machine learning technology evolve, process optimization will only become more advanced.

For example, tech innovations such as ABB’s Electrification Service solution Collaborative Operations for Electrical Systems – CLOSER provides interactive operational and troubleshooting step-by-step guides via an immersive augmented reality experience, allowing experienced technical experts to work with domestic workforces anywhere in the world to upskill them in any language.

With semiconductor demand skyrocketing, fabs cannot afford even a few minutes of downtime. Combine this with mounting pressure to enhance energy efficiency and hit decarbonization targets, and it has never been more important to invest in a reliable and efficient electrical distribution package. Not only can the right specification maintain uninterrupted production, but it can also boost efficiency and optimize equipment performance, extending the operational lifespan of the fabs that will power our chip revolution today and for the future.


All images used courtesy of ABB