By Dillon Tabish, 3-29-12
||Caption: Lee Wirkus works on installing wires at the Semitool Business Unit of Applied Materials in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzuttti/Flathead Beacon
Inside the expansive Applied Materials building on West Reserve Drive in Kalispell, the Digital Revolution continues to advance.
The name Semitool can still be found everywhere throughout the facility. Many of the same local faces are still present. And the innovation lives on.
Since Applied Materials Inc. purchased Semitool Inc. in late 2009, the local facility has remained at the forefront of modern technology. From smart phones to iPods to hearing aids – there are few devices that are not in some way connected to Applied Materials.
“Basically it was told to me that there isn’t a microchip out there in this world that didn’t go through an Applied Materials tool,” Jake Cook with the company’s business unit in Kalispell said.
For example, the latest iPad features a state-of-the-art high-resolution display. Applied Materials, through its cryptic manufacturing process, is considered the founding father of the equipment that led to this technology, and Semitool has had a hand in that development.
“It’s very exciting for us because all of these markets, that’s where the action is happening, whether it’s users of energy or it’s consumers of electronics,” Randhir Thakur, the executive vice president and general manager of Applied Materials' silicon Systems Group, said. “I would say we are at the foundation of this supply chain.”
Based in California and with sites around the world, Applied Materials has become one of the leading developers of the equipment that makes the world’s most popular electronics. Specifically, the company has mastered the innovation behind semiconductors, which are the foundation of electronics like computers and smart phones.
The significance of Applied Materials’ role in the global tech world was emphasized in a recent Associated Press story.
“Applied Materials serves as a barometer for technology spending because major makers of chips and LCD screens and even solar cells are big customers who depend on its equipment,” the story said.
Applied Materials recently reported record revenue and cash flow for 2011. The company’s total revenues reached $10.5 billion in October 2011, continuing a significant climb since 2009, the same year the firm purchased Semitool.
Between 2008 and 2009, Applied Materials’ total revenues dropped almost $3 billion. Nevertheless, in an effort to fill a vital gap in the company’s portfolio, Applied purchased the Kalispell-based Semitool in late 2009 for $360 million.
The addition has been beneficial, Thakur said.
Boxes of wafers are seen stacked in the lab at the Semitool Business Unit of Applied Materials in Kalispell.
“(Kalispell) should be very proud (of Semitool),” he said. “In the most advanced technology sectors like electronics and semiconductors, here is a company that has earned tremendous respect.”
The Semitool Business Unit of Applied Materials, as the Kalispell facility is now called, has roughly 450 employees, ranging from chemical engineers to lab analysts to manufacturing specialists.
Several employees from Kalispell have earned national awards and gone on to develop important patents for Applied, Cook said. Something as important as improving the reaction time of car airbags could some day be rooted in work done in Kalispell, he said.
“It’s kind of a think tank here,” Cook said during a recent tour of the facility. “We’re looking at how to solve problems on a microscopic level.”
Applied Materials has recognized Semitool’s worth as a key component of supplying technology to the larger corporation. As proof, Applied Materials invested over $1 million in the local facility last year, Cook said.
“We’re just excited about the potential that Applied brings to the table,” Cook said. “They’re a world-wide company and top notch in what they do. And we’ve got something here that’s good and it’s nurturing forward-thinking ideas within this industry.”
Founded in 1979, Semitool became respected around the world for developing equipment and tools used to make microchips. The company became particularly well known for its silicon wafer technology, which also happened to be a sector that Applied Materials was hoping to bolster three years ago.
“This was a good business opportunity for Applied Materials,” Thakur said of the 2009 acquisition.
The decision to purchase Semitool was influenced by the Kalispell company’s “culture” and “reputation,” Thakur said. The deal acted as a boost to Semitool’s stature in the global market, he said, and merged together two successful entities.
“Semitool had great technology and very good products but a lot of the big customers wanted to see some type of validation,” he said. “But once we did our acquisition they knew that the combo of technology from Semitool and the full support from Applied became invaluable.”
The result is a team of employees in Kalispell working on the front lines of the global Digital Revolution.
“The team that we have there on the ground and all the employees, what they have done is continue the innovation,” Thakur said.
After last year’s record year “topped Wall Street expectations,” according to the Associated Press story, Thakur expects Applied Materials to continue its rise.
“As long as we stay true to our values, we believe our future is very bright,” Thakur said, “and Semitool will continue to be a bright part of it.”
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