It isn’t often that anyone outside the IBM plant in Essex Junction gets a chance to see the internal operations of the microchip processor. But on Tuesday company officials made an exception for Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.
Scott got an intimate look at the massive IBM manufacturing complex, as part of his “Vermont Everyday Job” initiative.
Donning the garb of a specialized assembly line worker, Scott disappeared into a tightly controlled and sanitized workspace, into “clean rooms” and “garment rooms,” to experience the day of a typical IBM employee producing microchips.
As he left for the tour, into areas inaccessible to the press due to fears of contamination, Scott joked: “If I don’t come back in six hours, come and find me!”
Guided through three main workrooms by IBM employees, Scott washed containers, helped set up a robotics machine, and worked directly with some microchips, all the while talking with longtime IBM employees, many of whom had worked there for 20 to 30 years.
“It was very interesting to get to the inner workings of IBM,” said Scott afterwards. “It’s so starkly different than working for the railroad or for Green Mountain Power. I don’t know how to relate it to anything else I’ve ever done.”
“It’s almost like going behind the scenes of Disneyworld,” continued Scott. “Usually, you only go past IBM and see the infrastructure and never really quite understand the internal workings and robotics.”
A typical semiconductor wafer, produced in this IBM complex in the form of 200mm discs, is a complex, layered and highly delicate piece of technology: misplaced dust particles can disrupt the thousands of circuits embedded in each silicon wafer.
One wafer can take up to two months to produce, said Jeanette Bombardier, an IBM senior operations executive, with the value of the wafer, each customized to suit an IBM client, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Bombardier noted that the majority of the wafers, often composed of dozens of individual microchips, are exported to other countries, where they are further integrated into everyday consumer products like smartphones and laptops.
Neither the public nor schools, or hardly anyone else for that matter, is usually allowed an intimate facility tour, said Janet Doyle, a site operations and government affairs employee. She attributed this to concerns about contaminating the sensitive work environment, as well as commercial and government sensitivity to outside eyes.
Doyle didn’t detail specifics, but noted that IBM produces defense, NASA and satellite-related microchips for the U.S. government.
Asked about security measures at the manufacturing foundry, another IBM employee said with a straight face: “There are some things we just don’t talk about around here.”
That sounds about right. A slightly secretive atmosphere pervades the long minimalist corridors, where locked doors and warning signs abound. As in Hollywood, flashing green lights indicate that all is well: red or yellow flashing lights indicate problems or “stoppages”. Overhead tracks transport the black boxes which contain the wafers through several rooms and stages, while workers in customized white suits handle complex equipment, sometimes in rooms with a weird yellow hue.
Originally Scott’s tour had been suggested by an IBM employee at a volunteer event which the lieutenant governor attended, said Doyle, but Scott had been too busy during the last legislative session for a tour.
“It’s like a little self-contained city,” said Scott, of the IBM complex, “but it’s an integral part of what makes Vermont special and what makes it tick.”