Tampa Bay Manufacturing: Plasma-Therm Shines Light On World

From the guts of your mobile smart phone and your LED television to the photovoltaic cells that power space craft, specialty integrated circuits have a direct but little known connection to St. Petersburg.

The supply chain for cutting-edge semiconductors used around the world begins in the Tampa Bay region at Plasma-Therm LLP,  just off Gandy Boulevard  and I-275 in a warehouse and industrial district.

Plasma-Therm manufactures equipment for the production of electronic chips for current and futuristic applications. A growing bright spot of high-value-added industry serving global markets, Plasma-Therm increasingly attracts technical and engineering talent to Tampa Bay even in today's rocky economy. About 75 percent of Plasma-Therm employees are college-educated and about 25 percent have post-graduate degrees, typically in materials or electrical engineering.

A big portion of that growing labor force is locally educated and coming from the communities around the region.

"Where we see a good fit is in technical talent," says CEO Abdul Lateef. "If we need people on the production floor, if we need engineering, technical talent and scientific talent, those we seem to be able to find in the area. That's because of the programs at the University of Florida, the University of South Florida" and other local technical programs.

Executive and management talent has been more challenging to attract.

"As a positive and a benefit is the lifestyle in Florida. Overall, it's a family friendly environment. Also favorable is the taxation and the absence of a state income taxation.  A lot of candidates look at it as a 7 percent pay raise," Lateef says. "On the negative side is the absence of other companies in the semiconductor industry. Candidates fear there are no secondary or fall back positions.

"It's a matter of educating them about the opportunities here,'' Lateef adds. "There are a lot of opportunities. They are just unaware of them."

Manufacturers provide more than 81,000 jobs in the Tampa Bay region, many clustered in the medical device and defense sectors.

So what, exactly, does Plasma-Therm make?

Creating The Guts Of Integrated Circuits

Employees and visitors don head-to-toe clean suits to enter the dust-free room where Plasma-Therm assembles its products in a batch production process. Each machine in the process is made to order by a crew of technicians who build it up from a standard frame to a finished product. The machines use either precise etching or material deposition techniques to create circuitry on wafers of silicon and germanium, which become the guts of  integrated circuits.

The circuitry is measured in increments thousands of times too small to see with the naked eye. Plasma-Therm technicians measure  tolerances in nanometers (one-billionth of a meter), or in Angstroms, which is one-tenth of a nanometer. The slightest bit of contamination in equipment so finely calibrated is unacceptable. Hence the clean room environment, which contains about one one-thousandth as many dust particles as a typical living room. The testing room is another 10 times cleaner.

The equipment is broadly known as semiconductor fabrication equipment. The best-known and largest manufacturer of semiconductor fabrication equipment is Applied Materials, a behemoth with $10 billion in revenue,  which supplies equipment to the manufacturers of computer processors,  i.e. Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Texas Instruments, or the foundries that perform contract manufacturing for those large markets.

Plasma-Therm, with $50 million-plus in revenue, addresses smaller, faster-growing markets on the edges of the industry. Key markets include light emitting diodes (LED) used in backlighting flat panel television screens and in high efficiency lighting; thin film applications used in data storage devices; wireless communications, i.e. cell phones, micro-electromechanical systems such as the accelerometers that trigger air bag deployment; and research laboratories at major universities, including UF, Stanford and others.

LED is among the fastest-growing opportunities for Plasma-Therm. LED lighting has the potential to replace traditional incandescent lighting as well as the small fluorescent bulbs that are currently in use. The remaining end market applications are growing more slowly, but remain by and large stable.

Sharpening The Focus

Plasma-Therm faces no direct competition in the United States, but has some competition in the United Kingdom and Japan.

Plasma-Therm moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1991. Through the '90s, it was an independent, publicly traded company. In 2000 Swiss high-technology conglomerate Oerlikon purchased the firm. Oerlikon's ownership proved to be an uncomfortable fit.  The global recession in 2008 prompted Oerlikon, like hundreds of other companies, to reconsider what businesses it really wanted to own. Plasma-Therm's niche markets were not critical to the Swiss parent, and in January 2009, Oerlikon sold Plasma-Therm to management in a leveraged buyout led by Lateef.

Lateef, who holds a masters of science degree from the University of Nebraska and an MBA from the University of Florida, has been in St. Petersburg since 1998, when he was a project engineer at Plasma-Therm, and took leadership of the Oerlikon division in 2000. Then 2009 proved to be a disastrous year for the semiconductor industry. Global sales fell about 35 percent from a 2008 peak. Lateef and his team used the downturn to streamline the sales and distribution system outside the United States and sharpen the focus on a few key, rapidly growing markets.  

2010 became a rebound year in demand for semiconductors, and hence for the equipment used to make them.  The rebound enabled Plasma-Therm to return to profitability, and begin growing again. It had about 85 employees a year ago, and at the start of 2011 is now at about 100.

Rex Henderson is a freelance writer, an independent financial analyst and a private investor in Tampa. He holds a masters of business administration from the University of South Florida and is a chartered financial analyst. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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