Analysis and Commentary

Australia’s place in the semiconductor world — lessons from a life in the industry

Analysis and Commentary

In the final day of Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, we speak to Andy Brawley, whose long career in the sector was eventually ended by a NSW government determination that a historic fab must make way for a train line.   

“You can’t move a fab,” explains Andy Brawley, the General Manager of Manufacturing at Silanna Semiconductors until last year.

He is recalling an invitation in the 1990s made by former Victorian premier John Brumby to have a foundry owned by one of Silanna’s antecedent companies – with an incentive of tens of millions of dollars – relocate from Homebush. 

“You have to build it and start again. And $70 million is not going to do it.” 

It’s a point perhaps lost on politicians and others outside an industry of extraordinary complexity, running on incredibly expensive equipment that — besides everything else that goes into establishing a factory — might have a wait time, post-order, of a year attached if it. 

The wafer fab – built in 1988 at what was Lend Lease’s Australia Centre Technology Park at Homebush Bay – was shut in August 2021. What could be relocated has been moved to Eight Mile Plains in Brisbane, though it will be some time before the disruption is behind the company, according to Brawley. 

Gone forever, he adds, is the ability to build chips based on silicon-on-sapphire technology originating in US defence research, and which have featured in the Mars Rover, the Square Kilometre Array, countless mobile phones, and elsewhere.

What adds a dash of cruel irony to this story is that the year before Silanna had to shut its Homebush site, the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer published the Australian Semiconductor Sector Study. Its top priority?[T]o determine if, where and how NSW and Australia might more meaningfully participate in the global semiconductor value chain.”

The Office – among its roles is to provide independent advice to the NSW government – has declined to comment on the demise of the fab.

Sydney Metro was asked over a week ago about the decision to compulsorily acquire the site.

Was the decision to force a company — the only of its kind in the nation — to relocate regrettable, and was any other option available?

The Metro did not respond by deadline, and a written response was still “going through final approvals” at the time of writing. (This story will be updated if it arrives.)

Brawley is scathing of the NSW government’s decision and what he believes was a lack of importance attached to the chip maker’s supply to US defence primes and others. 

“We had a local company, Finisar [we were supplying]” he says. 

Credit Andy Brawley

“We were working with a company called Lapis, their production depended a lot on what we were doing. And these characters come in and turn around and say ‘we’re going to close you up.’”

Brawley, who is in his 70s, chose not to relocate to Brisbane and to end his career as the fab shut its doors.

It’s a career extending back to 1967, when he joined AWA’s ADDL division, which became AWA Microelectronics and built circuits for Cochlear implants, Teletronics pacemakers, Sonobuoys submarine detectors and more.

After being divested to the US’s Quality Semiconductor Inc it changed hands several times before being owned by Sapphicon (later renamed Silanna) in 2008.

In the below episode of @AuManufacturing Conversations With Brent Balinski, Brawley recalls a life in the Australian semiconductor industry. It runs from an interest in electronics pre-dating the local manufacture of transistors until the fab closure of what’s cited as “Australia’s only semiconductor design and manufacturing company.”

Episode guide

1:10 – Early interest in electronics. 

1:54 – Did an apprenticeship in radio and TV and several tech courses.

3:06 – Joined AWA’s ADDL division in 1967.

5:15 – Outgrowing AWA Microelectronics’ Rydalmere site. Started investigating a new facility in 1986. The company locates a site at Lend Lease’s Australia Centre Technology Park, Homebush Bay. 

8:10 – AWA starts to implode and the company looks to sell off some of its divisions. “Eventually it came to us in 1996.”

10 – Designing and building for DSTO, universities, hearing implants and pacemakers. Made circuits for Cochlear for 25 years. “When I look back on it, we were leading the world.”

11:30 – Quality Semiconductor buys AWAM. They are made to get out of medical electronics. “That hurt.”

12:00 – QSI merges with IDT.

13:50 – IDT starts closing their US foundries. Things started going south again in 2000.

15:20 – Peregrine Semiconductor buys in and silicon-on-sapphire enters the picture at Sydney.

16:50 – The 1990s. Victorian premier John Brumby asks if they want to relocate. 

19:20 – Intel courts Australian governments. “That whole thing went nowhere.”

23:15 – The 2000s. “We made Peregrine quite successful.” 

24:50 – Making VGA chips in big volumes and working the midnight to midday shift to get it done.

26:40 – Back to the Peregrine era and having to find work again, then finding RF switches for the global mobile phone market.

30:08 – Being asked to close in 2008 and having to find a new home for the team.

31:55 – Investing $30 million to build “fab three” in 2010. 

32:55 – Different roles within Silanna and its precursors.

36:25 – The Mars Rover.

37:56 – Contributing to the early days of UNSW’s quantum computing effort. Designing a new voltage pulse generator able to operate at very cold temperatures.

39:36 – Designing low-noise amplifiers for the Square Kilometre Array.

40:52 – The Picofab at University of Adelaide and expertise in gallium oxide.

44:25 – The sorts of capital investments needed to make semiconductors.

46:10 – Being told they have to make way for the Metro in October 2019. “Is this some sort of April Fools joke?” 

47:02 – The lack of understanding from government.

49:50 – The cruel irony of the NSW semiconductor industry report.

51:08 – “These things take years and years of planning, not 18 months. Not knocking on your door and saying ‘18 months and you’ve got to get out.’”

53:30 – Chips and geopolitics.

55:40 – Lessons from his career. The first is “The factor of pi” in planning.

58:30 – “Australia is not willing to accept risk,” whereas the US is “quite happy to fund ten projects and have nine fail.”

62:08 – Barry Jones’s visit to the foundry.

63:02 – Failure is a normal part of life and of technological progress, but you need to have a plan B.

64:35 – There is an ANZSIC code for brothels but not for the semiconductor industry. “That’s what they think of us.”

65:55 – What Australia needs to develop more high-tech manufacturing companies.

67:18 – The surprising industrial and educational impacts of having a fab around. 

69:40 – Which federal politician is going to champion the semiconductor industry in Australia? 

71 – Compound semiconductors and their relevance to Australia.

72:20 – Innovation is all about managing time.

@AuManufacturing and AUS-Semiconductor-Community’s editorial series, Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, is brought to you with the support of ANFF.


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