The semiconductor industry is pulsating with rumors that the global parent of WaferTech -- one of Clark County's biggest employers -- wants to expand elsewhere, raising questions about the future of the 16-year-old, Camas-based manufacturer of computer chips.
But regional officials, including a top executive at WaferTech, cautioned Friday against reading too much into the back-fence talk suggesting the company's parent -- Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. -- has designs on a new site in New York.
Area officials also emphasized that WaferTech -- which has about 1,000 employees at its nearly 1 million-square-foot complex, situated on a 260-acre site -- is doing well, with markets to serve and with room to grow. And expansion, they said, is not off the table.
"It's a stable operation here," said Jim Short, director of facilities for WaferTech. "There's quite a bit of demand for the products that we're making."
Trade publication rumors
The rumors stem, in part, from a Thanksgiving Day story published in the trade publication Electronic Engineering Times. The story, based largely on unspecified reports, speculated that "evidence is starting to mount" that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. -- owner of WaferTech -- plans to build a wafer plant in New York, where the state is helping subsidize investment in the next generation of computer chip technology.
The Oregonian followed with some speculation of its own, based on the EETimes story and on unnamed sources familiar with WaferTech. "With the chip industry set to shift to 450-millimeter wafers, a leading-edge fab in New York would suggest that TSMC will cluster U.S. operations there -- if anywhere," The Oregonian reported. "That could take expansion off the table for WaferTech, and Camas."
Feeding the rumors over where WaferTech's parent -- TSMC -- will build next are reports that giants such as Apple Inc. are seeking to revamp their supply chains. Apple relies on Samsung for custom chips found in its key products, including the iPhone and iPad. But Apple and Samsung have clashed in court over patents, and reports suggest Apple is looking for a different exclusive supplier arrangement.
For example, Bloomberg.com reported in August that Apple and Qualcomm Inc. were "rebuffed in separate attempts to invest cash" with TSMC "in a bid to secure exclusive access to smartphone chips."
And the rumors continue to fly. In October, the online publication AppleInsider reported that "Apple is said to have chosen TSMC's" production process "for its future products, presumably starting with a fifth-generation iPad in early 2014 based on Apple's current product release schedule."
WaferTech does not disclose its customers, Short said. TSMC, in its 2011 annual report, said it serves many of the world's leading technology companies including Qualcomm and Advanced Micro Devices.
The next generation
There's reason to believe New York would make an attractive location for TSMC's next manufacturing plant.
In a January analysis written for The Columbian, Rob Bernardi, president and CEO of Kokusai Semiconductor Equipment Corp. in Vancouver, wrote that industry giants Intel, Samsung, TSMC, IBM and Global Foundries have formed the Global 450 Consortium "to speed along research and development" in the area of 450-millimeter production wafers.
"New York state is helping to subsidize investment by these manufacturers in a 450 millimeter production line that will be established by the G450C group in Albany, N.Y., by mid-2013 or early 2014," according to Bernardi. "The end result of what will ultimately become a $30 billion to $40 billion investment in 450-millimeter wafer manufacturing will be cheaper and more innovative electronics for the consumer."
The 300-millimeter wafer is currently the state of the art in the industry, but the push is under way to move to the next generation -- 450 millimeter.
By contrast, WaferTech is a 200-millimeter fabrication plant. Its raw material is a blank silicon wafer on which it imprints circuitry. The idea of expanding wafer size is to achieve economies of scale, making production and consumer costs cheaper.
While WaferTech isn't producing the most cutting-edge wafers, said Short, the companies facilities director, there are still "multiple" 200-millimeter plants in production. And, he added, "there are still markets and applications" for 200-millimeter technology and even for older technologies.
Short said the media reports about TSMC's plans are "pretty much speculation." He said TSMC, which has 10 fabrication plants in Taiwan and one each in the U.S. and China, handles everything related to business expansion. Locally, he added, he's not aware of any definitive plans by TSMC to expand in the U.S.
Capacity to grow
Phil Bourquin, community development director for the city of Camas, said Friday that WaferTech has not submitted any new plans for expansion. However, he said, plans and infrastructure already in place would "accommodate growth out there" beyond the plant's first phase in the mid-1990s.
"Ever since they came here they've had a vision for that," Bourquin said. "We still believe that some day we'll see something … and they're a great partner in the city."
In any case, if -- or when -- WaferTech's parent, TSMC, gets serious about hunting for a new location to expand, it won't look at just one, according to experts.
Paul Dennis, president and CEO of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association and a former mayor of Camas, said it's not unusual for corporations to examine multiple potential locations. He said he's never gotten the sense that TSMC would ignore Camas in planning for a new site.
And many factors play a part in where corporations choose to locate, Dennis said, including workforce quality, available government incentives, the business climate, numerous cost issues and quality of life.
"When you're talking about (wafer) fab plants you're competing. at a minimum, in a domestic marketplace, if not the global marketplace," Dennis said.
Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, Twitter: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://twitter.com/col_energy; http://columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or email@example.com.