Big Lessons from Small Disruptions
On Friday night, March 17, 2000, a line of thunderstorms rolled through the desert city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. When lightning lit up the desert sky, one bolt struck an industrial building that housed a distant outpost of Philips NV, the Dutch electronics conglomerate. The furnace in Fabricator No. 22 caught ﬁre.
Immediately, alarms sounded inside the Philips plant and at the local ﬁre station. Sprinklers went off and Philips-trained staffers rushed into action. In less than 10 minutes, the ﬁre was out.
By the time the ﬁreﬁghters from Albuquerque Fire Station 15 arrived, they had nothing to do. “All we did was walk in and check it out,” said ﬁreﬁghter Ray Deloa. “It was fully extinguished by their staff.”1 After the standard safety check, local ﬁreﬁghters agreed that the situation was under control. So the ﬁreﬁghters ﬁlled out their paperwork and left the scene.
A routine investigation showed that the ﬁre had been minor.
Nobody was hurt and the damage seemed superﬁcial. The blaze did not make headlines in Europe, did not appear on CNN, and did not even appear in the Albuquerque newspapers. The ﬁre had been extinguished, but the real drama was yet to begin; few would have imagined that it would affect the future of two Scandinavian companies. The Spreading Impact of an Extinguished Fire
To the ﬁreﬁghters’ experienced eyes, the damage seemed minor.
Compared to the devastation created by a full-scale ﬁre, this small blaze was hardly worth the ﬁreﬁghters’ trip to the plant. What the
ﬁreﬁghters did not realize, however, was that the blaze’s location had once been one of the cleanest places on earth.
Philips’s plant, a semiconductor fabrication plant, or fab, tolerates no dirt. “Every surface has to be completely clean,” said Paul
Morrison, spokesman for Philips.2 The smallest spec of dandruff, lint, hair, or soot can ruin the delicate microscopic circuits that dominate the insides of modern electronics. Specialized air ﬁlters, cleanroom coveralls, and painstaking procedures ensure that no particle larger than half a micron3 gets either inside the cleanroom or into the delicate machinery or silicon wafers.
But on the night of the 17th, the ﬁre resulted in very different cleanrooms. Inside the damaged furnace, eight trays of wafers were immediately ruined. With hundreds of chips per eight-inch diameter wafer, each tray of wafers represented thousands of cellphones worth of production.
Worse, the effects weren’t conﬁned to Fabricator No. 22. Smoke had spread throughout the facility—further than Philips realized.
As staffers rushed to deal with the blaze and as ﬁreﬁghters tramped through the facility on their inspection, their shoes tracked in dirt. The smoke, the soot, and the tramping of staffers and ﬁreﬁghters left the cleanroom facilities anything but clean.
The contamination ruined wafers in almost every stage of production, destroying millions of cellphones’ worth of chips in those few minutes.
Even worse than the loss of valuable chips was the damage to the cleanrooms themselves. “It’s as if the devil were playing with us,” said one senior Philips manager who was involved in the clean-up. “Between the sprinklers and the smoke, everything that could go wrong did.”4 Two of Philips’s four fabricators in Albuquerque were contaminated that night. “Water and smoke creates about as messy an environment as you can imagine. Everything has to be completely sanitized,” said Philips spokesperson Paul
Returning the cleanrooms to their prior pristine state quickly would be a big job. Nervous executives in Amsterdam joked about showing up in Albuquerque with toothbrushes to help scrub the fabricator themselves. “We thought we would be back up after
Big Lessons from Small Disruptions
a week,” said Ralph Tuckwell, a spokesman for Philips semiconductors.6 The ﬁrst order of business was to communicate…