Seagate’s High Technology Challenge

Even the basic facts and figures around Seagate Technology’s Springtown plant rarely fail to impress. A world leading facility in every way and the biggest of its kind anywhere, the plant employs some 1,400 people, runs 24/7 and ships some two million read/write transducers every day.

That said, you won’t see any articulated trucks emerging from the Springtown site. Two million transducers will fit neatly into a large jiffy bag. The Seagate plant’s challenge, in fact, is all about size and scale.

In short, as demand grows for data storage space, Seagate’s researchers and engineers are charged with playing their part in making recording technology smaller…..then smaller again.

Research & Development Director Brendan Lafferty takes up the story. “We’re already working in atomic sizes, hundreds of thousandths of a human hair,” he says simply.

“And we’re making a lot of progress. We’re averaging a 15 – 20% growth in aerial density, which is the quantity of information bits than can be stored on any computer storage medium.

“But, at the same time, global demand has been growing by 30 to 40%. The past two years has seen another acceleration in demand, and we’re expecting a tenfold increase by 2020. So you can start to see the challenge we face.”

Seagate Technology (with around 40% of the global market) is one of three remaining large-scale manufacturers of hard disk drives in the world – the others are Western Digital (a further 40%) and Toshiba (20%). Hard disk drives store data in a series of small magnets in the surface coating of the disk.

The maximum aerial density is defined by the size of the magnetic particles in the surface, as well as the size of the head used to read and write the data. That’s where Seagate’s Springtown facility comes in. It celebrated its 20th anniversary back in 2013 and it’s one of a network of worldwide plants run by the US-based parent company, an employer of some 55,000 people worldwide.

“Crack open any hard drive from any computer and the odds are pretty good that there’ll be a component in there that was manufactured here at Springtown,” adds Brendan Lafferty.

“This site is the largest producer of read/write transducers in the world. In fact, there are only five, including our Seagate sister plant over in Minnesota. “In effect, our task is to shrink the magnets and increase capacity at the same time. We have to try to close the gap between the increases that we can achieve and the increase in global demand for memory. That’s what it comes down to.”

The Springtown plant has two primary cost factors – its advanced engineering equipment and its people. Of that 1400-strong workforce, a significant proportion are highly educated technical and scientific people. There are more than 100 PhDs on site, and the company continues to recruit highly qualified people almost as quick as it can get them. It works with a number of leading UK universities, among them Southampton University which has a world-leading optoelectronics department.

“It is very technologically challenging to work here; we’re talking about engineering on an atomic scale. But it’s that high level of technology that actually attracts a lot of really bright people to come and join us.”

The company has strong and established links with the Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment (soon to be the Department of the Economy), Invest NI and Queen’s University.

“We do our best to recruit and develop as much indigenous talent as we possibly can, but we’ve also got a very strong international team working here,” says Brendan Lafferty.

“We’ve got Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, Lebanese and a large contingent from a number of Asian countries.” On the equipment front, Seagate’s technology comes from suppliers in Europe but, to a large degree, from Japan. It’s not unusual to see Japanese engineers around the Springtown facility.

“This plant is fairly unique by its nature, at least in this part of Europe,” says Brendan Lafferty. “The only industry whose technology is comparable is the semi-conductor sector, and a plant like Intel in Leixlip near Dublin.”

Springtown might turn out two million read/write transducers every day, but it’s no quick process. From start to finish, the manufacturing process has some 1200 individual steps and spans four months. It takes a further four months for the finished hard disk drive product to leave Seagate’s downstream production plants elsewhere in the world.

“Quality is vital,” says Lafferty. “It’s an intricate science and an intricate process. So, if one small element goes wrong, it can have a very serious effect.”

The output from Springtown goes to internal customers within the wider Seagate group, in particular to two plants in the USA (in Colorado & Minnesota) and two in Asia (Korea & Singapore). Seagate Springtown personnel travel regularly in both directions to ensure seamless working within the wider hard disk drive manufacturing operation.

“We’re pretty well placed as far as time zones go,” Lafferty smiles. “We find that we’re working with Asia in the mornings and the US in the afternoons and evenings. Our customers want more memory but they also want costs to stay flat, so R&D is absolutely crucial to what we’re doing here at Springtown.”

In fact, some 40 PhD graduates have been added to the Springtown team in the past few months to work on pioneering new HAMR technology . The plant is currently working on a new generation of Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) technology….a means of making the magnetic devices smaller without the risk of them becoming less stable. Storage has come a long way since the early days of computers.

Back in 1956, IBM introduced the first hard disk drive at an aerial density of 2,000 bit/sq.inch. Last year, Seagate produced a hard drive at a density of 1.34 Tbit/sq/inch…..around 600 million times that of the first IBM disk.

“It is hard to get an idea of the kind of measures we’re working in. It’s right down to a few nanometers now…..half a dozen atoms, if you like.” A nanometer, for reference, is one billionth of a metre.

“The thing about this industry is that there is no stationary state. If we don’t keep going forward in terms of what we’re achieving, we’ll start going backwards. And that’s really not an option in an industry like this one.”