Renesas restarts second line at quake-hit chip plant

Renesas Electronics has started test production at a second chip-manufacturing line at its quake-hit Naka plant in Japan, putting the company another step closer to resuming commercial production.

Initial operations of a production line that handles 300-millimeter diameter silicon wafers began on Monday, said Tetsuya Tsurumaru, a senior vice president at the chip maker, during a briefing at the factory on Wednesday. It followed the start of test production on a 200mm line on Saturday.

While Renesas might not be a household name, it is an important supplier of microcontrollers that end up in a wide variety of consumer electronics products, including cell phones. It has a roughly 40 percent share of the global market for microcontrollers used in cars, and the halt at the Naka factory has contributed to disruption in vehicle and consumer electronics production worldwide.

The Naka plant lies about 250 kilometers from the epicenter of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck on March 11. It's sufficiently inland that it wasn't affected by the subsequent tsunami, but the factory did sustain violent shaking during the quake. The building escaped major structural damage, but the shaking was strong enough to move heavy chip-making machinery that had been bolted to the floor.

Chip manufacturing is a delicate and highly automated process with little room for error, so the resulting misalignment of machinery meant an instant halt to operations. Time is required to reset the machinery and filter dust and dirt particles from the air to restore the "clean room" environment in which chips are made.

On Wednesday, the company showed reporters the 200mm production line and provided more details about the anticipated restart of production.

The 200mm line, which handles the majority of automotive chip production, should start commercial production in mid June. The 300mm line, which is mainly used for cell phone and consumer electronics chips, is scheduled to restart in July. Both are more aggressive targets than originally announced.

However, when production does start it won't be at pre-quake levels. The company expects to begin at about 3,000 wafers per month on each line, which is about a tenth of total capacity.

Renesas said that in May it will provide an estimate on the resumption of full production.

As a stop-gap, Renesas has already moved production of some chips to other factories and shifted some production to a contract chip maker.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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