At Micron’s memory chip fabrication facility in the Washington, DC, suburb of Manassas, Virginia, the entire manufacturing area is blanketed in electronic detectors in all their various forms. But the primary purpose isn’t to keep intruders out or anything so prosaic. “A lot of them are microphones,” a spokesman for Micron said. “They listen to the robots.”
It turns out that there are thousands of microphones throughout the facility, or “fab,” as silicon manufacturing plants are commonly known. There are microphones inside the giant $70 million cameras that imprint the component layout on the silicon surface of a memory chip. There are microphones lining the tracks of the robot controlled railways that carry colorful plastic FOUPs (front opening universal pods) along the ceiling throughout the plant. There are microphones near essentially every moving part in the facility.
All those thousands of microphones are listening for signs of wear—for variances to develop in the noises made by the machines—so that maintenance can be scheduled before anything breaks and causes downtime. Downtime, as you might imagine, is about the worst thing that can happen to an automated chip-making facility.