Despite long-term concerns, SEH America in strong position, VP says

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

Updated: March 22, 2012, 10:43 AM

 
photoBen Bagherpour

A vice president of SEH America presented an optimistic short-term picture of the Japanese company’s future in Clark County on Wednesday while expressing concern about advances of foreign competitors and the quality of the U.S. workforce.

Ben Bagherpour, vice president of operations for SEH America, told Vancouver Rotary Club members that the east Vancouver plant is in a strong competitive position as a producer of 300-mm wafers now used to produce the microchips found in many electronics products. Demand for those new-generation wafers is growing while the market for older 200-mm wafers remains flat, Bagherpour said. “We are in a good position to create jobs in Vancouver.”

In addition, the SEH is looking into producing 450-mm wafers in Japan that are only beginning to appear in consumer products, Bagherpour said. “If you are not doing 300 millimeter and not able to accept 450 millimeter, you are going down,” Bagherpour said.

Larger wafers can accommodate more electronic circuits, thus reducing the cost per chip.

SEH America employs about 800 workers at its plant along Northeast 117th Avenue. The company, a subsidiary of Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical, has been a presence in Clark County since the early 1980s. The company has invested $1.7 billion on its

site. Bagherpour said SEH America is Clark Public Utilities’ largest electrical customer, with a power bill of up to $1.5 million per month. SEH uses electric furnaces to melt silicon, and then pulls the liquid rock into giant crystals, which are carefully sliced and polished into finished wafers to be sold to companies such as Intel or Wafertech.

In response to questions, Bagherpour said SEH still has no plans for how it will use the 174-acre property in east Vancouver it purchased two years ago from Hewlett-Packard for $55 million. HP has relocated to the Columbia Tech Center in east Vancouver. “A lot depends on the market,” Bagherpour said.

Bagherpour expressed concern about the rapid expansion of polysilicon wafer production in China and Korea. Although the wafers are of lower quality than those of established manufacturers, Bagherpour predicted that quality improvements could pose a competitive threat to the industry, in part because government subsidies allow for lower prices.

“Five to 10 years from now the quality will be there,” he said. “Then we will lose the edge. This is one thing we’ve really got to understand and we’ve really go to do something about.”

One of the things the United States needs to do, Bagherpour argued, is improve education so American workers can compete effectively. But that, he said, is a very big topic for another day.