Employees at Bookham Technology's site at Caswell, near Towcester in the UK, have been expressing anger and disbelief at being told last week that the 150mm (6") GaAs line is to close with the loss of around 60 jobs. The line, which makes Mach-Zender high-speed optical modulators as well as MMICs, was transferred from 100mm to 150mm wafers just a year ago.
The closure is believed to be the result of a drop in demand for GaAs optical modulators caused by the termination of a fixed term agreement to supply the product to Nortel Networks. The agreement was an integral condition of Bookham's acquisition of Nortel's Optical Transmitter and Receiver and Optical Amplifier Businesses at the end of 2002.
Bookham, which on Monday (24 May) announced a bid valued at $23.3 million for Californian optical amplifier modules and subsystems developer Onetta, has not issued an official statement about the closure. The Bookham Web site however carries a message to its MMIC customers urging them to contact their sales representatives for last-time buy requirements.
In a bizarre twist to the story, Bookham Technology became the new owner of San Jose, California-based amplifier and module manufacturer JCA Technology at the beginning of March this year, as part of its takeover of New Focus, and cited the synergy of its MMIC capability as a major benefit of the new management arrangement.
The GaAs line closure is a bitter blow for a company that has been an integral part of the microwave semiconductor industry since its earliest days. The Caswell foundry boasted the longest continuous history of GaAs development in the world, dating back to 1962, along with over 100 man-years of experience in GaAs MMIC design. A team from Caswell reported the world's first results on the development of the GaAs MMIC in 1976, and it was also the site where the GaAs MESFET was first realised in 1970. Before and during this period Caswell was a pioneer in the development and transfer into production of GaAs transferred-electron (Gunn) devices.
Caswell's recent history in GaAs under three successive parent companies - Plessey, GEC-Marconi and lately Bookham - has been characterised by a series of reversals in strategy that have left customers and employees alike doubting the management's long-term commitment to the technology. This fear has now been proved well-grounded.
"In some respects the decision to close the facility follows from a failed strategy over the past ten years to enter the commercial fray," commented Stephen Entwhistle, VP of Strategic Technologies Practice at Strategy Analytics. "The company's recent history through the 1990s saw Caswell come under the control of the defence giant GEC-Marconi, which did invest in a new fab that incorporated 6-inch capable equipment but which was initially used in the low volume 3-inch mode. This investment was no doubt justified on the back of defence programs such as active phased array radar and various high frequency communications applications. However the constant battle between internal defence needs and the external commercial aims is a challenge that few defence operations have successfully pulled off."
He continued, "Those companies that have become successful in commercial market-places are the ones which have been completely separated from the larger parent by a spin off or sale. Successes include Alpha and Rockwell creating Skyworks and Raytheon's sale to Fairchild."
Caswell's sale in early 2002 to Bookham Technology might well have achieved this same feat. But, says, Entwhistle, "Recent focus on MESFET and pHEMT with no HBT products precluded Bookham from mainstream opportunities. What is surprising is that Bookham did not look to use the facility for the captive production of fibre-optic analogue ICs such as TIAs and drivers (in addition to the GaAs modulators) for Bookham's fibre-optic modules and transceivers."
Several key figures in the global microwave industry learnt their trade at Caswell, and many have been expressing their sadness at the news of its demise.
Liam Devlin, Director of RF Integration at Plextek, reflected, "Having started as a world pioneer in GaAs device and MMIC manufacture, it's very sad to see the GaAs activity at Caswell end in this way. They had successfully transferred their GaAs IC processes recently to a 6-inch diameter line, and looked set for continued future success."
Commented Prof. Tom Brazil, head of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at University College Dublin, "Many of our friends and colleagues came through the GaAs activity at Caswell, and its 'graduates' have had a major influence around the world. The closure points to a very disturbing aspect for the UK and Europe, in that what was once a genuinely world-class high-technology operation should be run down and closed in this way."