IBM sets the gold standard for Vermont

IBM sets the gold standard for Vermont

J, Kevin

IBM, Vermont’s largest employer, expects to maintain its Burlington-area workforce at close to its current level during the coming year despite the mid-October announcement of a company-wide buyout offer.

“To my knowledge,” says IBM Vermont spokesman Jeff Couture, the Essex manufacturing facility has “not been given a quota” of job reductions to be achieved as part of the buyout initiative.

But even if a significant number of employees do opt for the voluntary severance package, involving one week’s salary for every six months of service, IBM’s Vermont division still may not experience a net job loss. At the same time as the buyout is under way, “we’ll be expanding in some skill areas,” says Couture. That planned but unspecified round of hiring may cancel out whatever downsizing may result from the buyout, he notes.

A recent breakthrough in IBM’s semiconductor manufacturing process will also help stabilize the size of Big Blue’s Vermont payroll.

The Essex plant is the only IBM site that will be producing a revolutionary type of computer chip that uses copper rather than aluminum for its circuitry. This switch in material allows technicians to cram a much greater quantity of computer logic onto a silicon wafer, thereby producing speedier and cheaper chips. They, in turn, permit computer intelligence to be built into smaller products that integrate complex functions.

Couture says he cannot predict what impact the new semiconductor manufacturing process will have on job numbers at the Essex plant. “But it will clearly have long-run benefits for us,” he adds. “Over the years, this will make up a larger and larger percentage of what we do here.”

With a current total of almost 7,000 full-time and 500 temporary workers, IBM has more than twice as many employees as any other private business in the state. The number of Vermonters working for the world’s largest computer corporation has fluctuated in accordance with swings in an industry that has exhibited volatility in recent years.

“We went through a downturn a while back,” Couture notes, “but the overall projections of growth for the next five years are very good.”

But previously announced plans for a new manufacturing plant–known as the Fab 200–at one of IBM’s current sites ate likely to be pushed further into the future, Couture says. There was intensive speculation a year and a half ago about the possibility of Vermont landing the proposed $1 billion facility, which is expected to generate hundreds of new jobs.

The envisioned plant was originally being designed on the assumption that it would process eight-inch-diameter silicon wafers–the standard size in the industry for some time. But the trend now is toward a process involving wafers that are 12 inches in diameter, Couture explains. “And this is going to require a lot of redesign and retooling.”

A timetable for opening the new plant has not been set, and Couture suggests that selection of a site for it is still many months, possibly years, away. Construction will almost certainly not get under way before the year 2000, he says.

Manufacturing of the copper-circuit chip will begin much sooner than that. IBM is eager to retain its lead over competitors who are believed to be as much as a year behind in developing this new technology.

Although it is a better conductor than aluminum, copper had been difficult to adopt to semiconductor manufacturing because it can contaminate a chip’s silicon surface. Gold, another superior conducting material, had also been considered as a substitute for aluminum, but was ruled out–probably for reasons of cost, Couture says.

IBM ultimately solved the problem by devising a special insulator separating the copper from the silicon base.

With this setup, circuitry can be built to a measurement of less than two microns, or about 500 times thinner than a human hair. Up to 12 million “gates,” the building blocks of computer logic, can now be fitted onto a single chip.

Products making use of the copper chips will be able to operate on lower power than would otherwise have been needed. And the chips themselves are estimated to be 30 percent less expensive than their aluminum predecessors.

Those advantages give IBM’s Vermont employees solid reasons to hope for a secure future.

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Nov 01, 1997

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