A year and a half ago, Motorola Inc. pulled the plug on plans to build a mammoth computer-chip plant near Richmond. With a worldwide glut of chips, it hardly made sense for Motorola to spend $2 billion to $3 billion to build a factory to make even more.
That plug is still officially pulled, but now Motorola is pushing ahead with plans to use the site in Goochland County west of Richmond after all.
Motorola, one of the world's largest chip makers, says it hopes to build a facility at the West Creek Business Park to manufacture 300-millimeter wafers--that's a bit larger than a medium pizza--that contain several hundred chips. The chips are then cut apart with a diamond blade and would be used in a variety of high-end technical applications, chiefly for advanced cellular telephones and computers.
But the holdup in construction of the plant, company spokesman Scott Stevens said, is that the manufacturing equipment to make the wafers has to be built first. That machinery is now being put together in Germany.
"There's no firm time line," Stevens said. "The equipment could be ready in a year."
So, at the earliest, he said, the Goochland plant could open then. But he added, "We're a little more gun-shy this time" in spelling out a specific timetable for opening the plant. "We're taking our cues from when the machinery will be built." Motorola has already twice delayed construction at the site.
He said Motorola may still eventually hire 2,500 workers at the site, which would be a huge boon to the central Virginia economy. It already operates another Virginia chip-making facility, the White Oak Semiconductor plant in nearby Henrico County, in a joint venture with Infineon Technologies. About 1,500 workers there make 200-millimeter wafers.
In the meantime, 20 Motorola workers are planning the Goochland facility and drawing up construction contracts while working out of trailers on the site. The 370-acre parcel has been cleared, a parking lot built and a ring road constructed that circles it.
Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Ill., is enjoying a sharply improved financial picture at the moment. As recently as July 1998, its operating profits had shrunk to almost nothing. But this past week it reported fourth-quarter 1999 earnings of $514 million, more than three times those of a year earlier.
The Motorola chip plant proposal goes back to 1995, and upon it Virginia pinned hopes of becoming a center of semiconductor chip production. The state already has chip plants in Manassas and Henrico County.
The Motorola plant was derailed by a worldwide glut of computer chips, a sharp downturn in chip prices and the Asian economic crisis. Motorola idled existing plants in Britain, California and North Carolina in the last two years.
Before the chip industry's revenue began its latest slide last year, more than 100 semiconductor-related firms were interested in opening offices in the state.
These latest moves by Motorola boost the state's hopes to be a player. Although the industry employs far fewer people than other computer-related professions do, it's a particularly visible part of Virginia's high-tech dream because of its multibillion-dollar projects and plants that each employ thousands. Some of those workers, without a college education, can earn $35,000 a year or more doing assembly-line work, but government officials can still boast that the workers have high-technology jobs.