These Bunnies Just Keep Going / Clean-room chip workers toil12-hour days in bunny suits

1999-04-19 04:00:00 PDT Roseville, Placer County — It looks like an astronaut’s convention.

A phalanx of white-suited workers, with no skin visible except their eyes, begins to file off of the NEC Electronics computer-chip factory floor just before 6 a.m.

They enter a crammed locker room, where workers on the next shift are already donning their bunny suits, getting ready for 12 hours in the fab (short for “fabrication”).

Bunny suits — so dubbed because of a wearer’s resemblance to the Easter bunny, sans ears and tail — are a peculiarity of the semiconductor industry. Microchips must be manufactured in “clean rooms” devoid of any microscopic particles that could wreck them. Workers wear the encompassing suits to ensure that nothing — not the thread from their clothes, not little flakes from their skin, not a speck of dust — gets on the delicate chips.

“When you look at a chip under a microscope, it’s like a city,” said Hank Halverson, a line maintenance technician. “A particle on that chip is about as big as an asteroid landing in the middle of that city.”

Spending a day surrounded by humming equipment and white-suited workers, is like science fiction, he said.

“Imagine being in a sauna for 12 hours,” said another worker.

Roughly 74,000 people across the country work in clean rooms building semiconductors, according to Robert McIlvaine, an Illinois consultant who serves the industry. That accounts for nearly one-third of all employees in the $67 billion U.S. chip industry.

In the Bay Area, workers don bunny suits in sophisticated development fabs run by companies such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, National Semiconductor and LSI Logic. Most local fabs are in Silicon Valley, near their companies’ corporate headquarters.

While many workers in the industry are scientists and Ph.D.s trying to make chips get faster, smaller and cheaper — and put them to use in everything from computers to clocks — many other workers are the average folks who don bunny suits and actually build the chips.

“Here is where the rubber meets the road,” said Halverson, who has worked at the fab since it opened 15 years ago. “This is where we make the product that the company makes money on.”

NEC Electronics is the U.S. chip-making arm of a giant Japanese conglomerate. The $40 billion parent company is the second-largest maker of computer chips in the world after Intel Corp. NEC Electronics employs 1,600 people in Roseville. Of those, 800 work in the fab.

NEC is also building a $1.4 billion fab across the street from the plant where Halverson works. The chips made in Roseville go into every type of electronic product on the market today. NEC uses them in computers, cell phones and hundreds of other products, and it also sells them to other manufacturers around the world.

The plant produces more than 30,000 six-inch wafers per month, and each wafer can contain hundreds of chips.

Despite their importance to the industry, bunny suits were largely unknown to the average person until Intel’s blitz of TV advertisements that featured break dancers in pastel space-age bunny suits. But the ads didn’t explain what they did, or why they’re in the suits.

Clean rooms have been around since the 1940s and the early nuclear labs, according to George Miller, editor of CleanRooms magazine. When engineers found their gyroscopes were inaccurate, the culprit “was basically dust,” he said. “It just wasn’t a clean environment.”

Now the chip industry’s bunny-suited workers may be an endangered species. McIlvaine, the industry consultant, said automation will render the bunny suit obsolete in several years.

“The wafer fab of the future won’t have people in bunny suits, but robots handling wafers and moving from station to station,” McIlvaine said.

NEC’s Roseville fab is already moving in that direction. “You want to remove the human factor,” said Enrico Cano, a manager in the process engineering department. Any time a person handles a wafer, it could get contaminated or damaged.

Robots are already hard at work at NEC, only they’re not the sort of humanoid robots envisioned in “Lost in Space.”

Some are simple small boxes, moving about on overhead tracks like the trolley in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” delivering wafers to and from the fab. The wafers are shiny silicon disks, six inches in diameter, on which the microchips are built.

Other robots, bigger and boxier, glide along tracks on the floor, moving blue boxes of wafers around the fab. One of these robots chimes “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to keep people from bumping into it as it goes about its business. It deposits the box at a mechanized station, where another robot uses a suction cup arm to open the box. Another arm then plucks out a wafer, looking like an old-fashioned turntable arm ready to put its stylus to an album, and sets it into some machinery.

And what machinery: Each of those square machines may look like a common dishwasher, but they can cost millions of dollars, and they perform tasks of mind-boggling complexity.

A single wafer goes through as many as 600 process steps, involving more than 100 machines. It can take weeks before a wafer is ready to be cut into chips and sent to market.

The robots enable NEC’s workers to wear a different breed of bunny suits.

The NEC bunny suits are not what Halverson called “The Empire Strikes Back” variety. In those suits, which remain de rigeur in 90 percent of the country’s 1,500 semiconductor clean rooms, workers wear helmets and special apparatus filtering their every breath.

Such suits can take an hour to put on. But at NEC, workers wear a polyester-type material (made by a North Carolina company called Techstyles) that slips over their street clothes in minutes.

A room full of indistinguishable workers may look like the ultimate totalitarian nightmare, but workers say it’s actually very democratic. “You can wear a comic book T-shirt and be viewed as totally professional if you act that way,” Halverson said. “You are judged by how you perform and how you communicate, because everybody’s dressed the same.”

The fab occupies most of the middle floor of the building; the first and third floors are all part of an elaborate ventilation system. Once inside the fab, it’s not hard to see why: Signs everywhere warn of toxic gases. Some particularly ominous pipes are labeled “Acid Exhaust.”

There are no “Dilbert” cartoons tacked up in the fab — only signs warning of danger everywhere. Dangerous gases. Dangerous voltages.

But the workers, while keeping conscious of safety, don’t show signs of alarm. Even people in bunny suits like to have some fun. Halverson describes people break dancing, and he said one criteria for new employees is how well they sing. He describes one colleague as “the guy who can hit all the high notes in ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ ”

Such cheer belies the more difficult aspects of the job.

“It’s tedious,” said Steven McComb, who operates machines known as steppers that expose the wafers to ultraviolet light. “Sometimes you get little sores on your hands from the gloves. Your boots get stinky. You can’t chew gum in there.”

Itches are difficult to cope with, bathroom breaks are rare, and, in Halverson’s words, “sneezing into your own face mask is unpleasant.”

Dianna Petifer, a production operator, said the constant hum of machinery and background music wears on her nerves. “When I get home, I can’t stand any noise,” she said.

But Petifer, 51, doesn’t complain. She has only a high school degree and left a 10-year career in retail for the fab nine years ago. “I couldn’t go anywhere else with the education I have and make the money I do,” she said. Workers in the fab make anywhere from $13 to $35 an hour.

The 12-hour shifts are a holdover from when it took an hour to suit up. Many workers now prefer the long days, because it gives them three days off. Every other week, they’re paid overtime for the long hours.

As the day winds down, Petifer, McComb, Halverson and their colleagues go to the locker room, slip out of their bunny suits and head for home.

While they rush for the door, the next shift arrives, having run errands and slept during the day.

“Your evenings are precious, and you’ve got to be a miser with your time,” Halverson said. “When you get unsmocked, you’ve got two or three hours, and then you need to get to sleep and get ready for the next day.”


I had a problem: I was ready to enter the clean room where the chips were made, but I couldn’t bring the most elemental tool of my trade, a reporter’s notebook.

Particles could come off the paper and contaminate a sensitive chip.

Fortunately, the industry that has put 9.5 million transistors on tiny slivers of silicon has also produced notebooks made out of something other than paper.

I was handed a small note pad with pages that appeared almost laminated and were impossible to tear.

I was ready. Almost. I then had to put on one of the famous so-called bunny suits — a full-body covering that seemed to be made out of the same type of synthetic material as my notebook.

For the next 12 hours, I filled that notebook, while saying silent thank- yous that I didn’t have to spend every workday dressed in the bunny suit.

I sweated. I fretted that I’d knock something over — a scary thought in a laboratory plastered with signs warning of various dangers. I moved clumsily, with big clownlike shoes covering my own size 9 feet.

“Clown” is probably an appropriate word, judging from the way my colleague, photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, would laugh when I’d try to conduct a serious interview. (For the record, Fitzmaurice — in her own bunny suit, with a big black camera bag around her waist — looked pretty silly herself.)

Donning the suit is a peculiar ritual. First, a hood goes on — and as newbies, we made all the requisite jokes about it looking like some religious garb — then a surgical mask, a jumpsuit, boots, safety goggles and rubber gloves.

And then the air shower.

We entered a narrow metal chamber with sticky mats on the floors and little jets on the walls. The jets blasted us for half a minute with cool air, removing any particles.

It was a little creepy at first, but we came to enjoy it: It was the only way to cool down while wearing the bunny suit.

Getting out of the fab, I did what every fab worker does: I immediately yanked off those clingy rubber gloves.

The rest of the suit came off, and except for my flattened hair, I felt like a normal person again.

The only trouble was, I was in a room full of people whom I had been talking to only moments earlier — and I couldn’t recognize any of them. They weren’t wearing their bunny suits.


A job inside a $1 billion chip fab involves complicated equipment and knowledge of physics, chemistry and electronics. But it’s also a job that doesn’t require any advanced degree.

Instead, it requires someone like Hank Halverson: hard-working, dedicated, safety-conscious and eager to learn.

Halverson is the sort of guy who’s excited because he gets to work with plasma — a glowing material somewhere between a gas and a liquid that’s used in etching semiconductors. “How many people can say they’ve seen plasma?” he asks.

Halverson, 37, lives two doors down from the house in which he grew up, in nearby Carmichael. He earned his associate’s degree from American River College. He’s worked at NEC Electronics’ Roseville plant since it opened 15 years ago in the rapidly growing suburb 16 miles from Sacramento.

His ex-wife also works at the plant; together, he said, they make “the perfect tag-team parents” for their 9-year-old son. Hank works the 12-hour shift every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and every other Sunday, and his ex-wife works every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and the Sundays that Hank doesn’t work.

Halverson makes in the neighborhood of $30 an hour, working alternating weeks of 36 and 48 hours. Technicians start between $12.67 and $19.32 an hour, according to a job posting on a bulletin board.

Halverson is so devoted to NEC that he’s learned Japanese and became a devotee of Japanese food. He dashes out for lunch at least once a week to a local strip mall’s Teriyaki to Go.

Halverson can ramble on for 15 minutes describing the processes of etching, doping and ion implantation. But his real gift is in coining expressions to describe facets of his job. When he gets to work, he takes off his street shoes and puts on “shoes that have never left the building.”

Inside the fab, people step on a sticky mat to remove any trace materials their boots might have picked up in the locker room. He calls this mat a “roach motel.”

When he first started work as a line maintenance technician, he worried that the job title “sounded awfully close to a janitor.”

At the end of the day, Halverson heads home and works out, punching a speed bag and a heavy bag. It’s important to stay in shape for a job that has him on his feet 12 hours a day.

In the winter, he can go an entire day without seeing the sun.

But in spring, when he steps outside, his allergies — dormant days while he’s been working in one of the world’s ultimate allergen-free zones — alert him to the change in environment.

As he starts to sneeze, he said, “I realize I’ve been in a blessed place.”

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