LEHI Someday, the fabrication portion of Micron Technology Inc.'s Lehi plant will be abuzz with people going through a seven-step process to put circuitry on silicon wafers.
For now, however, it remains a work-in-progress, part of Micron's multibuilding complex that is mostly idle, despite small, incremental growth in the facility's work force.
About 500 people work at the massive Lehi facility, but predictions about an upturn in the chip market which could eventually lead to thousands of employees remain elusive.
"I have no idea," Micron's Stan Lockhart told a group of World Trade Association members at a recent tour, when asked about the timetable for full employment. "It is a commodity market. It all depends on supply and demand."
So the testing area, handling overflow from Micron's cluster in Boise, remains busy and growing. Much of the rest of the buildings sport exposed walls, stacks of construction equipment and a handful of workers drilling or driving forklifts including in the fabrication area that is as large as an aircraft hangar.
Micron has 2.3 million square feet of building space on 2,100 acres.
The work force is growing by 10 to 15 people every week and the Lehi facility is handling one-fourth of the company's testing. "We reached a critical point (in Boise)," Lockhart said. "We were bulging at the seams with testing. We had no more room for testing."
At capacity, Lehi would also tackle about 80 percent of the fabrication now done in Boise. When complete, the Utah operation would have cost $1.5 billion for the buildings and $1.5 billion to buy and install equipment. Each testing machine costs $2 million.
"Yeah, this is a pretty significant investment," Lockhart said.
The expectation of jobs when Micron came to Utah in the mid-1990s was between 3,500 and 4,000. But work on the Lehi division slowed to a crawl when Micron lost $350 million in a market downturn.
When work on the facility started, Lockhart said, chips were selling for $16. Three years later, they could be had for $1.30.
And while optimism is guarded, it does exist. Micron had net income of $250 million in the most recent quarter. "We're rebounding well," Lockhart said, noting that unlike its competitors, Micron took on no debt during troubled times and thus had no layoffs.
And chip demand has risen 20 to 40 percent the past few years as cell phones, network routers and other electronic gizmos have joined the chip-using crowd of devices. Personal computers now account for 60 percent of Micron's chip sales.
Also, Micron's percentage of the chip market has grown from 5 percent three years ago to nearly 25 percent.
About 350 communities around the world wanted what Lehi is getting, and people on the World Trade Association tour said patience is needed for people expressing disappointment that the jobs have been slow to come to Micron's Utah operations.
"This is unbelievable," said Don Wiest, account executive for Bonneville International and former director of sales and marketing at Beehive International, involved in manufacturing computer peripherals.
"I toured the Boise facility a couple of years ago and was impressed, but the walls were bulging. It didn't have the space capacity there is here. This is immense.
"Probably people in Utah County concerned with employment opportunities thought that development here would be more rapid than it has been. But it's only a matter of time before they realize those employment opportunities."
Tom Mumford, an international-trade specialist at the Salt Lake City Export Assistance Center, said he was "impressed" with the facility and Micron's perseverance.
"They seem to be on top of their industry. They weathered the crash of the chip industry and have since increased their market share," Mumford said."The main thing in the industry is to be responsive to the market, and they seem to be good at that. But it's a commodity industry, and right now, they're constrained by market demand."
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