We’d like chips with everything

Sunday March 25th 2007

Published on 25 March, 2007. 


BUILT on the 360-acre site of a former stud farm on the outskirts of Leixlip, Intel’s largest factory outside the US employs 5,300 people directly or as contractors. With a further 200 at Shannon, Intel is the largest corporate contributor to Ireland’s GDP.On a bright, cool spring morning, the car park is overflowing, mainly with family saloons and hatchbacks, although the odd 4×4 stands out as well. No sign of an environmentally conscious bicycle park though.

Mercedes taxis deliver executives to the door of the mile-long building as I enter the reception. I’m given a visitor pass before walking through an airport-style security scanner that ushers me into the heart of this high-tech manufacturing monolith.

Clinically spotless corridors are in keeping with Intel’s FAB production area where a flake of skin or a spec of dust can render a computer chip useless. Photos and awards adorn the walls and hang from the ceiling, proclaiming Intel’s environmental, employee and all-round business friendliness. Casually dressed workers mill around, many in jeans and T-shirts, while maintenance workers are in hard hats and workwear.

One of the building’s several cafeterias is a hive of conversation and activity. Although it has the feel of a university cafe, at this hour of the morning, many students would be struggling to jumpstart their brain cells with caffeine. Not so here. Small groups are engaged in animated conversations. Some are huddled around laptops; others are talking on mobile phones. The vibe is one of action, innovation and ideas and a sense of dynamic, driven people, not just talking, but doing as well.

Innovation is the order of the day as I meet Martin Curley, global director of IT research and innovation. With only a moment to note that he’s one of the few people around here wearing a suit, he speaks quickly with a mid-Atlantic accent, giving me a rapid-fire rundown of some of the current projects he and his colleagues are working on. Intel’s chips process thousands, probably millions of pieces of data a second and the same energy seems to be flowing through this whole building and everyone who works here.

“Twelve innovation centres around the world are run from here and our R&D spend of 16-18 per cent of revenue is one of the highest in our industry,” says Curley. Intel’s focus here is on ‘disruptive innovation’ by applying technology in practical ways to solve problems for business, learning and government.

As we chat in a room adorned with PCs, large flatscreen monitors and other displays of Intel’s innovations, Curley can only spare 20 minutes to talk to me. He’s flying to London this afternoon to meet with Westminster City Council, which has been trialling wireless IP CCTV. At another event, he’ll encourage other UK local authorities to roll it out, because “what matters is that customers adopt Intel’s innovations because they have real-life practical benefits”.

Another innovation developed here predicts when a machine will fail. This has led to an improvement of two per cent of running time. For a manufacturer with hundreds of machines, it’s something with obvious practical and financial benefits. This isn’t the only idea Intel has up its sleeve.

“We’ve developed a market-based approach, using gaming theory. It predicts the impact of a product on a market at one per cent of the cost, in less time than current methods and without the need for a costly panel of experts,” he says.

As Curley leaves for London, it’s time to meet Intel’s general manager of Irish operations, Jim O’Hara. I’m still trying to take in everything his colleague has told me as we pass through a room full of partitioned office cubicles into a conference room, where the focus point is again a large flatscreen monitor.

O’Hara strides in, shakes my hand and launches into the story of Intel here and how it has grown since 1990 from a team of 300-400 people who trained in the US. Employees now come here from all over the world for training and it’s estimated that the revenue generated here last year topped €6.5bn.

As chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce here, O’Hara is a critic of the rising costs of doing business in Ireland and is no fan of bureaucracy. I’m slightly surprised when he declines to criticise any minister or government department after I suggest they could learn a thing or two from Intel. “We’re high tech and high productivity and our output would be two to three times that of the state sector,” he says.

Competing on a world level also means being able to try out new ideas and adapt quickly. “Two days ago one of my senior technical people had an idea about incorporating a flash device into an Intel PC and next week we’re going to develop that.”

As O’Hara heads off to his next meeting, I’m led along the vast maze of corridors once again to another of the Java City cafes, where we stop for photos. Tasty-looking eclairs, doughnuts, muffins and pastries fill a display counter. There are ten types of coffee here and they’re all organic, shade-grown, fairtrade, bird-friendly and endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance. The food in the canteen is as diverse. You could spend half an hour choosing what to have for lunch.

Johannes Sipilica, who is originally from South Africa, has worked here for four years. Known and liked by everyone, he makes sure the coffee – which seems to be the fuel everyone here runs on – is second to none.

“I’ve travelled all over Europe, but Ireland is one of its best countries,” he says. He’s met people from all over the world here, but he’s seen a bit more of it too, thanks to winning a ‘Barista of the Year’ prize, which took him to Italy for a fortnight. “It was superb to be recognised with a prize for being part of Intel,” he says.

So what’s it really like working at the heart of Intel? Manufacturing technician Adrian Coffey has a four-year-old daughter and works four days one week and three days the next. Just back from three weeks training in Boston, he enjoys the quarterly staff and supervisor nights out for a meal, bowling and greyhound-racing nights.

Would he recommend working at Intel to his daughter? “Definitely, it’s not just work, it’s a way of life. I’ve achieved what I never knew I was able to achieve here,” he enthuses.

Engineering group leader Paul Healy describes the in-house university where the focus is on “numerous technical and management courses that help us stay on top of the constant changes in high-tech engineering”. Whereas Coffey’s average day is quite hands-on – along with his gloves and toolbox, he keeps the factory’s key equipment online – Healy’s is more focused on reviewing operations, listening to the technicians’ views and concerns and making sure they’re meeting their targets.

Evenings are taken up with Intel’s ‘virtual factory’ when regular phone calls ensure staff compare, review and learn from partners at its factories in Phoenix and Oregon in the US. Healy and his team have visited staff there to build working relationships, keeping them all at the top of their game. “Not only that, but the diverse backgrounds and views of everyone here ensures we learn from each other’s ideas and approaches,” Healy says.

Joanne Rice shows me around the real heart of the place in the FAB production area, where the latest Core Duo, Quad Core and flash memory chips are made. Each one takes hundreds of steps to make and “more than a few weeks in total”, she says.

Peering through windows at an area 1,000 times cleaner than a hospital operating theatre, it’s difficult to describe the scene as a guy wearing what looks like a space suit is hard at work. Here each chip is imprinted with the outline of circuitry as a yellow light flashes. This happens for each layer of several hundred that make up each chip.

Once this has been done, another machine carries the chips to the next process.

Run by a team of 150-170 people, this core part of the plant has its own clean water, clean air and energy systems, which keep it going 24/7. Another of Intel’s key people is voluntary placement officer Bronagh Friel. She loves her job and it shows. Possibly the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met, she’s just back from planting trees at nine local schools for National Tree Week. When she’s not planting trees, she helps Intel employees get involved in local volunteer work. They can’t get enough of helping kids and elderly local people, she tells me, as all her events and groups are oversubscribed.

The taxi-driver who takes me back into Dublin suggests “everyone’s brainwashed and you leave your soul at the door at that place,” when I tell him I’ve spent the day at Intel. Perhaps, like me, he felt a bit amateur and unprofessional in comparison.

Others might see its culture as paternalistic, but it attracts and breeds highly motivated, intelligent and dynamic people. It gives them a lot and the employees give a lot in return. Surely any company or organisation strives for that? It leaves me slightly envious of Intel’s staff and awestruck by its culture. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed.

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