Western Digital Unveils Plant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Western Digital Corp. formally opened a $120-million semiconductor wafer fabrication plant here Thursday that the company says will play a key role in its efforts to stay at the forefront of semiconductor technology.

Production of semiconductor wafers--or disks of electronic chips that form the basic building blocks of computers--will begin at the plant in early 1991. About 400 employees are working at the 224,000-square-foot plant now. It will eventually employ about 600 people.

'We've positioned ourselves over the last several years to compete in a number of high-growth markets, all of which are dependent on the functional and performance advances of the semiconductor," said Roger W. Johnson, Western Digital's chairman, president and chief executive. "With this new facility, we can deliver those advances and differentiate ourselves in the marketplace."

While many semiconductor companies are building plants overseas to benefit from lower operating costs, Johnson said Western Digital decided to locate the plant near its corporate headquarters and engineering staff in the Irvine Spectrum business park. The reason, he said, is that the company believes that locating corporate executives near the manufacturing site will allow the company to respond more quickly to changes in the industry.

And although some U.S. computer parts makers use subcontractors to supply chips for their products, the Irvine plant gives Western Digital more control of the design, testing and manufacturing know-how, said John MacKay, senior vice president of manufacturing operations.

The company expects to produce about 40% of its computer chips at the plant after production is in full swing within two years. The company will continue to make chips at AT&T; facilities in Pennsylvania, Florida and Spain.

MacKay said the plant has a so-called Class 1 clean room, which means the air in the room is 1,000 times more pure than a hospital surgical room. Clean room employees will wear protective suits so that they do not contaminate the manufacturing process, which must be pure because the circuits in the chips are so small that they can be ruined by dust particles.

MacKay also said the company has taken precautions to ensure the safe disposal and storage of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. No ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons are used at the plant.

The company said its older Costa Mesa semiconductor plant will gradually be closed with no loss of jobs.

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