Vacuum assembly plant sprouts in Oregon's Silicon Forest
With its cranes and bulldozers, shiny new buildings with brand new views, the Silicon Forest continues to grow in Washington County.
The most recent example: Edwards Vacuum produces vacuum and exhaust management systems for the semiconductor industry, and just opened its new North America Semiconductor Technology Center in Hillsboro in August.
Edwards doesn't manufacture here, it assembles. Its global headquarters are in Burgess Hill in West Sussex, England, and the parts for its systems are made in Korea,
Japan, and the United Kingdom. This is high tech assembly work: if a plumber makes a mistake, you might end up with damp sheetrock or a stained rug. However, if someone on this assembly attaches a hose incorrectly, there could be high-pressure toxic chemicals spraying around the chip factory — not that it would ever happen since quality control is so stringent.
The integrated system is a combination of vacuum pumps, exhaust gas management abatement systems. The parts are put into an ergonomic, low-carbon-footprint rack. They sell for between $100,000 and half a million dollars.
In a chip-making operation, such as an Intel fabrication plant, the tools that manufacture the semiconductor chips use the large quantity of complex chemicals under a vacuum process environment. Something has to exhaust the gases away from the tools and down into the subfab (lower level). There, they travel through huge ducts to be neutralized or disposed of. Edwards' "integrated systems" suck away the chemicals, measure them and treat them. They are usually located on the floor beneath the tools and connected by pipes and ducts.
Nature adores a vacuum
There's always been a need for vacuums in science and manufacturing. Vacuum has been at the heart of many of the innovations we now take for granted from radio to television to smartphones. Even your instant coffee has Edwards Vacuum in its essence. Edwards has been a part of Atlas Copco, a Swedish company since 2014. Atlas Copco traditionally made compressors, the opposite technology, and therefore a good fit, businesswise.
Edwards' technology is used in the manufacturing processes for semiconductors, flat panel displays, LEDs, solar cells and a variety of other industrial and R&D applications.
The company already had buildings in the area before, but they were scattered. This custom-designed Technology Center has everything the firm needs to move people and products efficiently. As well as corporate office and the parts warehouse and assembly floor, there are rooms where customers are trained to operate and fix the products they are buying, including a sales room with fully assembled units and an innovation center for research and development.
Oregon or Buffalo: Choose
At the opening ceremony, Scott Balaguer said the location was good for being close to customers, and for attracting talent.
"We are bringing high volume manufacturing capability to North America to be closer to our customers and will be designing and building our integrated vacuum and abatement systems and other products here in Hillsboro, creating local jobs and contributing to the local economy in the process."
Balaguer showed the Business Tribune around the new plant, which takes over the mantle of U.S. headquarters from the current location, near Buffalo, New York. Balaguer said that there had been no great rush for staff to relocate from upstate New York to the Portland area. (Buffalo will be turned into a regional distribution center, a warehouse for parts.) The current headcount here is 100, but Balaguer said it would grow to 200.
Asked if what they do here is considered skilled labor, Balaguer replied, "There's a variety of levels of individual skill, everything from an assembly guy to a technician, to a Ph.D., to the mechanical engineer. The R&D department has a number of PhDs. On the factory floor, there are some skills required to run some of the analytics equipment and software equipment, and leak testing."
The systems are custom made — they can keep adding pumps and abatement systems, depending on what the client needs.
Edwards' scientists and engineers have to work with all sorts of engineers at other companies.
"You're dealing with a vast variety of chemistries and different gases, different flows, all depending on what the chip is
that you're trying to make, whether it's a memory chip, or a logic chip, and different materials," Balaguer said. "So we have to understand what's coming down those pipes."
The units have to be compact, to save on expensive real estate in the fab, and they also have to be ergonomic. A human has to be able to gain access to maintain and service with the integrated solutions.
Edwards' process vacuum is thousands of times more powerful than a household vacuum.
A vacuum has to be strong enough to deal with tool waste byproduct. Silicon dioxide, for example, is pasty and white and it can clog things up. So the vacuum has to be able to draw that material out of that chamber down the fore line and then out into the waste treatment system."
On a scale of complexity, from vacuum cleaner through NASCAR to jet aircraft, Balaguer says the mechanical engineering is closer to that of an airplane.
"There's a lot of electronics involved, there's a lot of sensors involved. We're always working on the next generation innovative solutions, which will have predictive modeling in it so that we don't have unscheduled vacuum pump and exhaust management systems' downtime."
Knowing that means they can schedule maintenance for when other people in the fab are turning off their machines to fix them.
"Sometimes you run it to failure, accidentally, and that causes downtime in the factory. No customer likes downtime in the factory," Balaguer said.
"The big product that really propelled us here recently has been the dry pump. Previously pumps needed oil to operate, which adds contamination to the process."
Without pumps, there are no vacuums, but you can now have pump motors without oil.
"There's no need for oil," Balaguer said. "They're very carefully machined to minimize the amount of friction and they run without any kind of additional lubrication...We build most of our pumps in South Korea. And they're manufactured from a block of steel."
As factories go, it's squeaky clean. It was designed in-house by an engineer and a manufacturing engineer to lay out everything from the tape on the floor and the signs on the walls to the nearest inch. Balaguer says they continue to improve the process as they go.
On the floor
Christopher Balboa, a manufacturing technician, sat at the beginning of the production line. He was showing a third-week trainee named Devin Chesbrough how to connect a water line on to the frame.
"Right now, he's working on one of the water lines that is going to be connected onto one of the frames over here," explained Balboa. "And that is definitely the more beginning stage of the entire build."
Two sides of the room work on different things: building frames and adding components. "So, if everything's timed correctly, on their side, we should be able to integrate all of our finished product here to the aggregation stuff there. It's like a zigzag flow line."
How long does it take for one module to be completed?
"If everything's done accordingly, one finished tool should take at least a couple of days," he said.
Balboa started at LAM Research in Tigard and became interested in the semiconductor industry.
"I know the actual semiconductor machine itself, like how to build it from the ground up. You know, this is just more of an extension."
Balboa wants to get into engineering the tools, and for that, it will take another degree, which he's prepared to get.
He sees people coming into the Edwards assembly line from diverse backgrounds, many from the automotive field. In September, they were mostly training new
people, brought in through a recruiting firm and word of mouth. Recruits don't need to be a degreed engineer. They need to have at least a minimum of a high school, but
Edwards prefers at least an associate's degree.
In some parts of town, like Silicon Forest, it's still a jobseeker's market.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.