Boise’s Micron expands R&D, aiming for a bigger role in our work and personal lives

Tour a Micron clean room under construction

Naga Chandrasekaran, vice president of process R&D, and Elizabeth Elroy, senior manager of Boise site facilities, lead a tour of a clean room at Micron Technology Inc.'s new research and development building in Boise.
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Naga Chandrasekaran, vice president of process R&D, and Elizabeth Elroy, senior manager of Boise site facilities, lead a tour of a clean room at Micron Technology Inc.'s new research and development building in Boise.

Micron Technology Inc. has created in Boise what its CEO calls the largest semiconductor research center for memory technology in the Western Hemisphere.

Its purpose: to help Micron take an increasing part in our lives by designing memory products to help drive cars, improve cloud data-processing and even cure cancer.

The company’s new 100,000-square-foot building connects with existing research and development buildings to double the size of the R&D operation at Micron’s Federal Way headquarters.

Construction of the four-story, $200 million plant began in October 2015 and ended in July. It’s the focal point for developing new semiconductor-manufacturing processes for a dozen Micron manufacturing plants worldwide.

“That is very meaningful in terms of giving us greater flexibility to research and develop more memory technologies, so we can bring them faster to high-volume production at our building sites and bring those solutions faster to the benefit of consumers and businesses worldwide,” CEO Sanjay Mehrotra said at a ceremony this week to mark the building’s opening.

The R&D center will focus on technology and products that Micron plans to bring to the market in the next five to 10 years, said Scott DeBoer, executive vice president for technology development.

Micron memory in our machines

Mehrotra and DeBoer sought to remind Idahoans that Micron already is everywhere.

“Micron has a very large global scale of manufacturing capability and a very broad reach to customers,” Mehrotra said. “Micron solutions go into your mobile phone. They go into your notebook computer. They go into the data centers that are really enabling new services for businesses.”

Mehrotra, (meh-RO-truh), 59, succeeded Mark Duncan as CEO in May, a year after Mehrotra left SanDisk, a Micron competitor that he co-founded in the Bay Area. SanDisk was sold to Western Digital, a hard-drive maker.

Neither Mehrotra nor DeBoer would say whether the new building will result in new hires, though Mehrotra said last month that he expects Micron’s local employment to keep growing. The company employs 6,800 people in Boise — the biggest for-profit employer in the Treasure Valley. It is Idaho’s largest publicly traded company.

“We don’t necessarily provide forecasts,” DeBoer said. “We just want to do what makes sense businesswise. Sometimes that leads to a lack of as much information as people would like to have.”

R&D ‘more important now’

As time goes on, Micron’s memory keeps getting more specialized, he said.

“In mobile applications, phones have much more intelligence behind them,” DeBoer said. “The chips are combined in unique packaging. They have special functions.”

That makes research and development more important than ever, he said.

“It wasn’t as important back when we were a commodity memory supplier,” DeBoer said. “It’s much more important now that we’re selling solid-state drives and we’re a key supplier for some of the biggest mobile device makers. It’s very much of growing importance and a focus of our team.”

Micron has benefited from smartphone manufacturers continuing to add more dynamic-random access memory, or DRAM, into both low-end and high-end phones. Mehrotra has said the company is also well-positioned to take advantage of coming improvements in artificial intelligence, which requires enormous amounts of data. He believes AI will discover cures for cancer and other diseases.

‘A massive opportunity’

Micron already sells a 3-D NAND memory chip that can store more than three times as much data as some other NAND products do. NAND flash is a solid-state memory that does not require a hard drive to permanently store data, as it retains its data when a device is turned off.

NAND — short for not-and, a mathematical term — flash is faster, smaller and uses less power than hard drives. NAND flash is widely used in smartphones and laptops.

DeBoer is positive about Micron’s prospects.

“There is massive opportunity in front of Micron to really grow into the memory-system business, to get more and more cost-effective, to improve our technology positions in some places where they’re trailing, and to take advantage of some places where we have the technology advantages,” he said.

Micron has also announced plans to build a three-story office building on its campus. It will have 225,000 square feet, about as big as a Walmart Supercenter. Micron also is adding 12,000 square feet to its 33,210-square-foot cafeteria.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell