For years, the trend in technology has been shrinking the size of devices. At Applied Materials, its electronic tools are growing.
Unlike those who recall computers shrinking from an entire room to a hand-held device, Operations Manager Mike Nye remembers when a person could pick up and carry an Applied tool that now takes up the size of a room.
Senior Director of Business Unit Operations Scott Osterman explained that “when someone has an idea as to how to create a new device or a new technology, you have to have the digital infrastructure, if you will, to be able to deliver what that is.” The constant need for this advanced digital infrastructure has driven Applied Materials’ expansion.
Applied Materials is “the world’s No. 1 semiconductor and display equipment company,” according to a company presentation.
“There is no chip that hasn’t somehow, in some part of its life, gone through some Applied tool,” Osterman asserted. Its Kalispell facilities are one of the primary centers for the Santa Clara, California-based company with 93 locations in 17 countries.
The Kalispell location was incorporated in 2009 when Applied Materials bought Semitool, a semiconductor company founded in the 1970s. Between its Reserve Drive packaging, plating and cleans business unit and the Birch Grove welding and machining facility, Applied designs, engineers and manufactures tools that produce components in smartphones, computers, solar panels and a variety of other electronics.
Applied employs approximately 550 people in the Flathead Valley. Despite being one of the area’s biggest employers, Nye noted a lot of locals don’t realize what goes on behind Applied’s doors. “They think we make computers” and other large electronic devices, he said. “Some think we make trucks because of the ‘semi’ in Semitool,” its previous name.
“We don’t make wafers or chips,” or any of the other products people mistakenly attribute to Applied, Nye clarified. “We make the equipment that makes chips.”
In Kalispell, this equipment ranges from small parts to massive machinery. Locally, Applied manufactures three major processing systems capable of producing hundreds of wafers per hour. These towering, intricate machines are built in Kalispell and used in other Applied locations across the globe.
Kalispell is also Applied’s leading location for making the high-quality tubing necessary to run these large devices. The Kalispell branch produces thousands of plastic tubes every year, and Osterman pointed out this location is “the only place that makes this volume of tubes.”
“We don’t just make equipment,” Nye added. Its Kalispell facility is also the site of research, design, sales and a number of other operations.
“We do a lot of primary research here on better welding techniques,” Osterman said, including the unique practice of welding plastic to improve the structural integrity of many products.
Osterman emphasized Applied’s Kalispell operations are uniquely comprehensive. Between the two facilities, they work on everything from raw materials to advanced products.
“We are unique in that we can build things from literally scratch to finished tools. There’s no other site that I’m aware of that can do that,” Nye noted.
Osterman added, “We start with bare metal and build tools. That’s relatively unique in today’s semiconductor industry.”
This full-scale local facility has a hand in nearly every cutting-edge technological advancement emerging today, including virtual reality, smart devices from vehicles to refrigerators, artificial intelligence and the proliferation of immense amounts of information known as Big Data.
Osterman said two key advancements are driving today’s tech industry: “devices are getting smarter and the nature of computing is changing.” In Kalispell and beyond, Applied is working on the research and development to keep up with these trends by increasing efficiency, improving computing power and compressing the internal configurations of electronics, among a variety of other high-tech endeavors.
As its technology grows in size and complexity, Applied Materials has adjusted its local operations accordingly. A few years ago, for example, its expanding operations prompted the need for more nitrogen onsite, so the company built its own nitrogen plant instead of trucking it in a few times every week.
The new nitrogen tanks can be seen from Reserve Drive on the side of the packaging, plating and cleans business unit. They are a visible manifestation to the community of the way Applied is “adding capacity” locally, Nye said.
Expanding the capabilities here is important for the California-based company and its local employees, Nye pointed out. He noted it is rare and appealing “to be in the industry we’re in and merge that with the quality of life we can have here.”
“You can’t do what we do in many small-town locations,” he added.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4459.