Turning sand into silicon chips

25 Aug 2011

The nations that produce tomorrow’s cutting edge technologies will be best positioned for economic growth, says Intel’s Eamonn Sinnott. He tells JOHN KENNEDY that advanced manufacturing is the future

When the general manager of Intel’s 4,000 strong operations in Ireland Eamonn Sinnott went to school teachers used to warn the kids that if they didn’t pay attention they’d wind up working in a factory.

“When I was going to school, getting a job in the factory was what happened to you if you didn’t do well at school. The plum jobs were in the banks or civil service.”

In the Ireland of 2011 it is clear the jobs landscape has changed dramatically. With eight out of 10 of the world’s biggest computer giants located here and a similar proportion in the life sciences and bio-pharma industries, the outlook for science and ICT graduates is particularly bright.

Intel’s Leixlip operations – which have seen investment of over US$7bn since 1989 – earlier this year received a welcome boost in the form of a US$500m additional investment that will create 200 high level technology jobs as well as 850 construction jobs.

Intel is currently riding on the crest of a wave – it achieved record revenues of US$43bn last year and employs 82,000 people worldwide.

“Things have changed and it would be my ambition to see my kids work in a facility like this. I think the kind of careers we can offer from opportunities to travel the world and develop a global perspective to gain skills in lean manufacturing, all with the opportunity to release the potential in people and have them contribute to the maximum of their capabilities.”

Sinnott – who describes himself as a poster child for Irish industrial policy – was among the earliest intake of Irish workers in the early 1990s that joined the semiconductor giant and he found himself among a cadre of Irish young engineers in the New Mexico desert figuring out how to make computer chips.

Within a few years Fab 10 in Leixlip went on to produce 50pc of the world’s supply of Pentium processors at a time when Pentium chips were making the PC revolution and subsequent internet revolution possible. In other words, Ireland made an indelible mark on the history of computing.

Fab 10 was followed by investments in Fab 14 and then by Fab 24 and Fab 24 (2) where 65-nanometre chips (a nanometer is equivalent to the growth of a fingernail on a single day) are currently produced.

Sinnott describes the latest investment by Intel of US$500m to redevelop the former Fab 14 operation at Leixlip as an investment in Ireland’s future.

“If you look at the last 20 years in context, Ireland has done extraordinarily well. Fab 14 is being reconstructed as we speak. It is easily the largest construction site in the entire country, if not the only one. You see people in hard hats and visibility vests and it is a great sight to see. Drink in the sense of excitement and enthusiasm that is around here but what this really represents is a watershed moment for us on site.

“That US$500m investment sets us up for the next 20 years and puts us in pole position on what’s going to be happening in computing.”

The investment means that Ireland will be hosting leading edge process technology that will be enabling the technology roadmap of the future.

Sinnott says the investment wouldn’t have been possible without the capability and skills of the team. “This highly versatile, capable workforce has delivered repeatedly for Intel over the last 20 years and are highly regarded in the company. It is fair to say that the investment here would be in a safe, protective pair of hands.”

In the last decade, amid the property bubble, an irresponsible notion did the rounds in this country that manufacturing had no future. The same people responsible for the rumour probably said the property bubble would never burst.

It is therefore ironic that in 2011 the sectors of both manufacturing and agriculture are pivotal to Ireland’s policy today of stealthily trading its way out of recession.

Ireland has built a critical mass of firms in a number of important industries, such as financial services, pharmaceuticals, technology and internet services (including most recently, cloud computing), which in turn makes Ireland attractive for further investment.

In effect, in areas like bio-pharma and manufacturing, alongside services like finance and internet, the country has aligned itself with some of the big technology bets that will yield future jobs.

The European Commission’s High Level Expert group on key emerging technologies (KETs), which included Sinnott’s predecessor, former Intel country manager Jim O’Hara representing the semiconductor industry, has identified several key areas of technology that are worth US$832bn today but could be worth US$1,282bn by 2015.

These areas include nanotechnology and nanoelectronics (US$250bn by 2015), advanced materials (€150bn by 2015), industry biotechnology (€125bn and advanced manufacturing (€200bn). In nanotechnology alone it is estimated there were 160,000 workers in this area. It is estimated some two million new jobs will be created by this technology globally by 2015.

“We support the report’s recommendations to create a global level playing field for advanced manufacturing in Europe, with particular emphasis on the crucial contributions of the semiconductor industry,” Sinnott says.

“It is imperative that we retain and attract new investments in advanced manufacturing in order to sustain and grow this capability.”

Sinnott notes that the first thing to bear in mind is manufacturing and this will continue to be a crucial part of Ireland’s economy both now and well into the future. Secondly, if Irish people simply put their minds to being the best at what they do in any given field, they can do it.

“Why do I believe that? Well because I’ve got US$500m on the table to prove it.

“Go and see what we’re building and think about the impact we will make for the next 20 years. We are going to be servicing a worldwide market and dealing with the best in the world for that.

“What I see as the fuel for the digital economy revolution is what is going on around us in this country right now.

“That may be the Intel part of the question, but looking at Ireland overall I can’t help but believe that the digital economy represents a very positive future for a very vibrant Ireland.

“But how do we as a country participate in this digital revolution and how do we make sure we’re not left behind as an island off the edge of Europe?”

Sinnott stresses that the key is education and warns Ireland cannot afford to slip behind on education, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

“The lifeblood of these organisations is a well-educated workforce. The promise is exciting, dynamic careers and futures.”

The new investment in Leixlip will support products that haven’t even been invented yet, he adds.

Sinnott points to the latest advancement at Intel: a revolutionary new 3D transistor design called Tri-Gate that will enable Moore’s Law to continue doubling the number of transistors on chips for the next decade.

“This will enable technology innovation to continue and will enter production later this year.

“What we have learned is we are limited only by our creativity and imagination. What happens at Intel is we start with sand and end up with microprocessors but it’s the stuff that happens in the middle that makes the difference.

“The education system needs to evolve to ensure that we are at the heart of that kind of innovation.”

In conclusion Sinnott recalls a recent visit by EU Commissioner Vivian Reding to the Intel plant in Leixlip. Passing by a young lady working in a lab beside the factory Reding said she must be chuffed to have been promoted to the lab.

“She replied: ‘Actually it’s the other way around, it’s my ambition to work on the factory floor because that is where the real science happens’,” Sinnott says with pride.

Pictured: Intel Ireland general manager Eamonn Sinnott believes that advanced manufacturing will continue to play a critical role in Ireland’s economy both now and well into the future.Why? Well, he’s got a US$500m investment in place to prove it. He says the education system needs to evolve to keep our edge

Join the debate with Ireland’s digtial leaders at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin on 30 September 2011. Visit www.siliconrepublic.com/digitalirelandforum


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years