June 23, 2011
Circuit plots on the walls of a conference room at United Memories’ Colorado Springs offices tell the story of the last two decades of computer chip design: ever more transistors on every chip, smaller and faster.
“We started out at the 1 megabit level and we’re currently designing at the 1 and 2 gigabit level,” said Bob Gower, United Memory’s president and CEO.
Gower’s own experience with semiconductors goes back practically to the dawn of the silicon era: His first job in the semiconductor industry was working for Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in 1961. That’s the computer world’s version of working for Thomas Edison — Kilby is the man who invented the integrated circuit in 1958.
Fifty years later, Gower is at long last leaving integrated circuits behind. He plans to retire at the end of the month.
“If you’re an engineer or a nerd or a geek, this is heaven,” Gower said as he gives a tour of United Memories’ array of test equipment, including scanning electron microscopes and focused ion beam.
United Memories is a small company, about 20 employees. It fills a niche, offering memory chip design and testing services, rather than actually building the chips itself. Those giant chip fabrication plants, like the former Intel site a few blocks from United Memories’ offices on List Drive, cost billions of dollars, Gower said, and require constant retooling.
“We stay out of that,” Gower said. Often, he said, the designers at United Memories don’t even know exactly where their designs end up.
“Occasionally, we’ll have a PC break down and we’ll take it apart and say, ‘Oh look, there’s one of ours,”” he said.
What United Memories offers is a highly experienced group of engineers, Gower said. Twelve of the current staff started with the company when it was founded in 1990 and most of them, including Gower, are veterans of Inmos, the now nearly legendary chipmaker that made Colorado Springs a powerhouse for semiconductor manufacturing. Gower took over the top job at United under difficult circumstances in 1997 when Sheff Eaton, the company’s president and co-founder, died in a hang gliding accident.
United Memories is owned by ProMOS Technologies, a Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer, and was previously owned by a Japanese chipmaker, but Gower said they let the Colorado Springs group work autonomously.
“Engineers of this caliber are very, very hard to find,” Gower said. “The people that buy us are very aware they could be buying an empty box. I remind them that this group of engineers are in Colorado Springs for a reason. This is where they want to live. It’s where we want to raise our kids.”
United Memories specializes in DRAM (dynamic random access memory) chips, which are used in computers, cellphones, even toys. New memory technologies have tried to take over that market and there are worries that the industry will someday hit the physical limits on how small silicon circuits can get, but Gower thinks DRAM, silicon and his company will be around for a long time to come.
Gower occasionally talks to engineering students and tells them he wishes he could be their age again, just to see what happens next in the technology.
“I do not see a limit any time soon,” he said. “At 70 years old, I don’t think I’m going to see a whole lot more.”
This is a difficult time in the chip industry, Gower said, with diminishing profits, overcapacity and a never-ending cycle of upgrades that require gargantuan investments in manufacturing. Last year, United Memories sold some of its patents (the company has generated more than 250 patents since 1990) and used some of the proceeds to reinvest in technology.
“It’s not a cheap business,” Gower said. “We’re not running a lemonade stand.”
Gower’s successor will be Jon Faue, a senior design engineer who has been with United Memories since the beginning. Despite the challenges facing the industry, Faue said United Memories is in fine shape as it tackles the next generation of memory technology.
“We’re doing state of the art memory designs, DDR3,” Faue said. “Eventually, we’ll move on to DDR4 and somebody will keep adding numbers after that.”
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