Intel NM on forefront of new technologies

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

They’re back!

That’s what Erika Edgerly, Intel Corp.’s government affairs officer for the company’s Rio Rancho plant, told the Economic Forum on Wednesday morning, following the semiconductor giant’s announcement in May that it will hire 300 more employees this year for its New Mexico site.

“We have 1,200 employees on site now, 62 percent of them hired locally, and 300 more are coming on,” Edgerly said. “… We’re back. We’re hiring.”

Erika Edgerly

In an aside, she acknowledged Intel never really left. But the increase in jobs is a sharp turnaround for the local plant, which reduced its workforce from 3,300 people in 2013 to just 1,100 by 2017, generating broad concern about Intel’s future in New Mexico. Until recently, major corporate investment continually bypassed the aging Rio Rancho site in favor of Intel plants in other states and countries as the company moved onto more advanced computer processing chips than those made in New Mexico.

Now, the Rio Rancho site is front and center in developing new technologies that go far beyond Intel’s traditional focus on computer processing units, or CPUs, for personal computers and lap tops, Edgerly said. The local plant has become a key corporate cog in the design and production of next-generation components to immensely speed processing capacity in everything from data centers to smart buildings and cars.

Made in NM

“People think we’re still just a chip-making company,” Edgerly said. “We are chips, but we’re moving well beyond that.”

The Rio Rancho operation still churns out lots of semiconductor chips, but since 2017, it’s carved a new niche in emerging “silicon photonics” technology, and in advanced memory storage devices that improve computer processing and high-speed data transfer.

In part, that’s the result of ingenuity by local Intel engineers, who managed to surpass other corporate sites in developing new methods to fuse optics technology, or lasers, with traditional silicon-based electronics servers. That next-generation technology uses light to speed data transfer, compared with traditional digital communications that rely on electronics to transfer and process information.

Intel began incorporating made-in-New Mexico silicon-photonics components into transceivers and receivers for data centers in 2016. That gave the local plant a novel niche in corporate efforts to maintain market dominance in the data center industry, where the company provides communications processing components to manage huge computer servers and networks.

Silicon photonics

Intel is among many industry players scrambling to develop silicon photonics to better manage high-speed data transfer in a hyperconnected world that provides instant access for consumers using everything from smart phones and computers to high-definition TV.

Rio Rancho’s innovation could boost Intel’s competitive edge, allowing data centers that incorporate the new technology to both increase data processing and transfer while lowering power consumption. It can also replace bulky and expensive copper wiring, cables and infrastructure used in electronic-based digital communications with fiber optics, saving space and reducing costs, Edgerly said.

Silicon photonics injected new life into the Rio Rancho plant in 2017, stemming workforce downsizing for the first time since 2013.

Then, last year, Intel transferred development of a new storage and memory technology to New Mexico, giving the Rio Rancho plant another critical niche in company efforts to build next-generation devices and expand markets.

‘Optane’ tech

The new “Optane” technology is based on new engineering architecture that places memory and storage much closer to microprocessors inside computers, or in data centers, allowing information to flow back and forth faster and more efficiently.

The technology is packaged in solid state drives, or cards, that users can slide in and out of computers or lap tops, allowing operators to literally swap memories, Edgerly said.

“It’s perfectly mobile,” she said. “If you want new memory, you just pull out the card and put in another one.”

Optane could significantly boost capacity in data centers, or on individual computers, with potential applications in many markets. After applying it to MRI technology, for example, researchers were able to cut image-processing times from 42 to four minutes, Edgerly said.

Rio Rancho’s newfound development work paved the way for 100 new hires last fall, followed by the May announcement of 300 new positions this year.

“We have 70 positions posted as of today,” Edgerly said. “That includes everything from maintenance technicians to folks doing technology development.”

Generating other jobs

The ramp-up is also generating jobs for hundreds of contract workers, said Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, who attended Wednesday’s breakfast.

“We’re receiving ancillary reports that contractors are hiring upwards of 400 to 500 people for work directly connected to Intel,” Hull told the Journal.

Long-term labor stability, or growth, depends on market adoption of Intel’s new technologies.

But for now, it’s reversed the four-year decline that began in 2013, and Rio Rancho remains a key site for expanded technology development.

“I do see a bright future at the site,” Edgerly said. “…We‘re continuously solving technology problems, so there will be more challenges and opportunities. I’m optimistic.”

Erika Edgerly, Intel Corp.’s government affairs officer for the company’s Rio Rancho plant

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