Semiconductors are the brains of everything from computers to microwave ovens. But when it comes to preventing chip thievery, chipmakers have not been very smart: Upwards of $20 million worth of chips are stolen annually just in California's Bay Area. Since it can be difficult to distinguish an Intel microprocessor from a Micron Technology memory chip, for instance, it's nearly impossible to trace when and at which factories stolen chips were made -- and find clues to who swiped them.
Now, Ultratech Stepper, a subsidiary of General Signal Corp., can mark chips so they can be identified by company and batch. The Santa Clara company has added software to its steppers, machines that print circuit designs on silicon wafers, that automatically prints a serial number on each chip. The process can also boost quality control by helping companies trace defective chips to pin down the cause of the problem.