By: Wayne Heilman Jun 23, 2018
Cobham Semiconductor Solutions may not be the best-known or biggest computer chip manufacturer in Colorado Springs, but the British-owned company is about to raise its profile by spending $2 million to install an automated production line that will begin producing printed circuit cards this month.
The company also is studying whether to remodel or expand its 130,000-square-foot plant at 4350 Centennial Blvd. to determine the best way to get the most out of the building, said Kevin Jackson, who was named vice president and general manager of Cobham Semiconductor in April.
Cobham owns about 20 acres along Centennial that could accommodate an addition.
The operation is among the oldest semiconductor manufacturers in Colorado Springs, opening in 1980 as United Technology Microelectronics Center to package chips made by other companies that its aerospace giant parent and subsidiaries used in jet engines, helicopters, radar systems and other products. The unit grew rapidly during the mid-1980s after it began making customized chips, semiconductors with military-standard designs and chips that resist radiation damage that were sold to outside military and aerospace customers.
By the mid-1990s, UTMC was struggling with an outdated plant and losing money, so the aerospace giant sold off its plant to Rockwell International (which later sold it to Intel) and again used semiconductors made by other manufacturers.
United Technologies eventually merged the operation with another local unit that assembled printed circuit boards and sold the combined operation in 1999 to Aeroflex Inc. The new owners sharpened the operation’s focus to specialized chips for military and space applications, circuit card assembly and radiation testing, nearly doubling its size to 350 employees before Cobham acquired Aeroflex in 2014.
Chips made by Cobham were used in the ExoMars spacecraft launched in 2016 by the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency to find out more about the atmosphere of Mars.
The operation makes a variety of microprocessors; semiconductor clocks; memory, logic, power and interconnect chips and integrated circuits programmed for specific applications in the space, medical, commercial and industrial markets. Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions’ primary customers include Airbus, Ball Aerospace, Boeing, General Dynamics, Harris, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and other major defense and space contractors.
Before joining Cobham, Jackson spent most of his aerospace industry career with United Technologies in various management roles that most recently included managing N2 Imaging Systems, a California-based company acquired by United Technologies that makes imaging equipment used by soldiers for night vision, surveillance and targeting. He also managed United Technologies’ Joint Strike Fighter program office and its space and maritime systems operation, both in Connecticut.
The U.S. Military Academy graduate spent eight years in the Army as an engineering officer and also spent time working with Carrier and Goodrich after leaving the Army in 2006.
Jackson was interviewed this month about the company’s plans for its Colorado Springs operation.
What are your responsibilities at Cobham Semiconductor?
I manage the semiconductor and radiation testing operations in Colorado Springs, the United Kingdom, Sweden and we work with a design center in San Diego. That includes 500 employees producing a variety of radiation-hardened semiconductors, chips that are programmed for specific applications, computers on a circuit board, circuit cards and radiation testing. We receive silicon wafers from other U.S. manufacturers and do the testing, packaging and special processing. Our products are used in satellites and space payloads for both military and commercial space applications.
Our products are used in the F-35 aircraft, spacecraft and other defense, homeland security and medical devices ranging from airport scanning to medical imaging, and are designed to be used in some of the harshest conditions.
Is the operation in Colorado Springs growing?
We have a very aggressive agenda for our Semiconductor Solutions team, and Colorado Springs will play a major role in that. We have 30 open positions across assembly, test, engineering and program management. The business is growing and our skill set needs are growing along with that. There is a shortage of talent in this industry, so we have brought in 11 interns this summer, mostly from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, so we can broaden our relationship and introduce people to Cobham. We need to be able to meet the very demanding environment in which our customers are operating. We are taking a broader view of our product portfolio to make sure we can provide cutting-edge solutions and meet the demands of not only our current customers but also forecast where the technology is going. We have been able to adapt to meet our customers’ needs and build a strong backlog.
Will Cobham’s growth require it to expand the Colorado Springs plant?
We own the building and land for our plant, and we are evaluating our current footprint and demands for space to see if we need to expand or can remodel our existing footprint. We are looking at our current layout and determine if we could better use it, or possibly expand the building. We also are positioning ourselves to run 24 hours a day and that will create an opportunity to add 20 people to our manufacturing and assembly operations during the next two years, especially as we expand our automated circuit card assembly operation. We have made a large investment — $2 million — in the automated circuit card assembly operation to increase production. We are just testing that system now and expect initial production runs by the end of the month. We have been installing this line for 18-24 months for a new customer (which Jackson declined to disclose) in support of our design team in San Diego.
How long will your facilities review take?
I expect it will be complete in about a year. We need to be able to keep up with the speed, capabilities and quality requirements that our customers need.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
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