THE semiconductor plant at Roborough, on the outskirts of Plymouth, is not everyone’s idea of architectural beauty. It has the gas-storage containers and vacuum pumps that are a familiar part of the industrial landscape. Prince Charles, who opened the factory in 1987, said it looked like a high-tech Victorian prison.
The plant was built by Plessey, one of Britain’s largest companies until it was carved up in 1989 by two rivals, GEC and Siemens, after a long and bitter takeover battle. Plessey’s old military-equipment business is buried within BAE Systems; the bit that made telephone systems is now part of Ericsson. But its semiconductor arm lives again. The Plymouth plant—and the Plessey name—is coming back to life under Michael LeGoff, a Canadian entrepreneur. His bold bet is that the sort of manufacturing that has drifted eastward can thrive again in Britain
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While a lot of companies pay lip service to the benefits of design being close to production, the reality is that there are more than a few ghost-town-feeling fabs here in Europe, with way too many empty buildings. Nice to see some companies, however small, are still trying to maintain the two-way communication between design and manufacturing, and the benefits of sitting around in the same lunch hall are easy to underestime (speaking from experience).
It’s often repeated that the high-value jobs in design inevitably follow the low-value jobs in manufacturing overseas, and I can already see that in many semiconductor companies. While Plessey is making peanuts financially, I definately wish them the best trying to close the loop and go against the grain of current thinking.
We’re depriving future generations in our own backyard of opportunities to excel and innovate by not being able to expose them to the grunt work of building chips, understand manufacturing constraints, etc.
Big fabs will probably never come back to Europe (at least Western Europe), but at least more experimental design would definately be nice to see.