IBM’s $3 billion investment to have little impact on Vermont plant

Little or none of IBM’s planned $3 billion investment in chip technology is likely to reach the company’s Vermont facilities.

International Business Machines Inc. announced Thursday it would ramp up its cloud computing and “Big Data” initiatives. But the innovation they’re bankrolling doesn’t involve the manufacturing technology employed at the Essex Junction plant.

The news release announcing the initiative said teams from Albany and Yorktown, New York; Almaden, California; and Europe will be involved. A company spokesman declined to comment on the local impact in Vermont.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said the announcement is welcome news, even without a clear sense of its impact for Vermont.

“Regardless, the investment signals that IBM is positioning itself for the next generation of microchip development and production, which is good news for the strength of the company, the future of its workers, and IBM’s contribution to the national economy,” Shumlin said.

IBM is said to be negotiating the sale of its computer chip manufacturing division to Globalfoundries, a subsidiary of Mubadala, a multi-sector corporate network wholly owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

That sale almost certainly would involve the firm’s facilities in Vermont, where IBM is the largest private employer with more than 4,000 employees.

Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., said the company’s latest announcement shows that IBM intends to continue to lead knowledge-based development of technology.

“I think it has absolutely zero to do with whatever is going to happen, if anything is going to happen, with Essex Junction,” Cioffi said.

Pushing technology’s limits is at the core of what IBM does, Cioffi said, so he’s not surprised by their aspirations.

IBM wants to develop non-silicon chips and whittle its semiconductors down to 7 nanometers or smaller. The company is trying to stay ahead of the curve as markets continue to demand processors that are faster, less power-hungry and cheaper to produce.

A nanometer width is one-billionth of a meter. Comparatively, a strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative. A human hair is approximately 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide — about as long as a human fingernail grows in one second. A millimeter is one-thousandth (0.001) of a meter.

Work done in Essex Junction involves much larger technology than IBM’s latest direction: wafers ranging from 200 to 300 millimeters, photo mask technology of 200, 300 and 450 millimeters, and nodes from 350 nanometers down to 90 nanometers. Custom logic and specialty foundry chip work also is done there, as well as radio frequency and other wireless work, according to an earlier email with spokesman Jim Keller, with the Systems Technology Group.

As rumors continue to float about IBM getting out of manufacturing, the company affirmed its commitment to research and development with its latest news.

IBM will sustain private-public partnerships through the Semiconductor Research Corp. The University of Vermont is not listed on SRC’s website as a participating university.

Hilary Niles

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