As Finisar Corp. ramps up hiring to begin production of vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers for Apple’s iPhone products at its new Sherman facility, a company executive said continued expansion in demand for its components could bring the next phase of its local expansion — and additional hiring — as early as next year.
In an exclusive interview with the Herald Democrat, Finisar Vice President of New Markets Craig Thompson said the company’s VCSEL technology is on a “very fast growth trajectory” in technology ranging from consumer mobile devices to automotive applications.
“What tends to happen is each 12 months, we go through a demand cycle,” Thompson said. “This initial build out that we’re doing in Sherman, it’ll come online in the second half of 2018, but really sets us up for 2019 production and then we’ll reassess very quickly in early- to mid-2019 what 2020 looks like, what 2021 (looks like). If demand keeps going for 3-D camera technologies and infrared sensors like they are today, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we have to pull in plans to expand further.”
VCSELs — an acronym that is pronounced “vixels” in the tech world — are small semiconductor devices that emit light vertically and measure the depth at which that light is reflected. That depth-sensing technology allows smartphones and similar technology to turn off the screen when people raise devices to their faces and powers Apple features such as Face ID, Animoji and portrait mode selfies. At the same time Finisar announced its expansion into Sherman, Apple awarded the company $390 million from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to increase the development and production of VCSEL arrays.
Thompson explained in high tech fabrication facilities like the one Finisar is putting together in Sherman, the number of new jobs won’t necessarily scale with its output and capacity because the processes are very automated. However, he said a new phase of hiring for further expansion would include “a substantial increase in jobs” similar to how Finisar’s Allen facility went from 120-150 people to over 300 people in the last 12 months to accommodate a production increase there.
“Most of those increases have to be in operator and technician roles that we typically hire from the local population — we train and invest in people that way,” Thompson said. “The same thing’s going to happen in Sherman. The initial 500 people or so, the vast majority of them will be operators and technicians. If we need to double capacity for expansion a year later or two years later, then we certainly have to add a substantial amount of technicians and operators to support that production, but it won’t be double the numbers necessarily.”
Finisar currently produces VCSEL arrays in its Allen facility and the addition of the Sherman facility is expected to give the company the ability to ship millions of VCSEL arrays. Company officials have set a goal of beginning production in Sherman by the third quarter of 2018.
When its expansion into Sherman was announced, Finisar did not offer a projected average salary range for the 500 new employees it is hiring, but said they will include positions for engineers, technicians and maintenance teams. The company’s payroll for its North Texas operations — Sherman and Allen — is expected to be a combined $65 million.
Thompson said the company’s Allen facility was originally used to service its own internal needs for VCSELs. However, with the 3-D sensing technology being incorporated into new applications in the automotive field such as the sensors that go around cars to sense pedestrians and other obstacles, as well as real-time driver monitoring inside cars, demand is increasing.
“I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of applications for the technology,” Thompson said. “I think it’s much like putting a GPS chip in a phone or putting a gyro in a phone. It’s kind of that base functionality that’s been enabled and over the next few years all sorts of great ideas will be generated for using it. When we started to sell VCSELs to external customers for these new applications, it made sense to start here (in Allen), but we’ve built this out as much as we possibly can. There is not a square foot of floor space available now to do more. Sherman will give us substantially more capacity — we’re talking multiples.”
The company’s Allen facility is 160,000 square feet, while its new Sherman facility in the former MEMC building is nearly 700,000 square feet.
“The initial build out will probably utilize what I think is probably a quarter to a third of what the total production capacity of what the current building there could potentially house,” Thompson said. “And we’re very bullish on this market and application. We can see us fully building out Sherman beyond just this initial phase and if all goes well, we made need more space.”
Thompson said despite all extra room the company will have in its new Sherman location initially, the Finisar facility in Allen will continue to operate as a separate site to service the company’s core internal business for the foreseeable future.
“Demand for these types of products and these new applications are sufficiently large that I’m going to need all the capacity here plus what we can build out in Sherman,” Thompson said. “We’ve had to upgrade this facility a fair bit to meet the standards of the industry and the new applications that are coming. Sherman will be world class from day one. It will be the most advanced laser manufacturing facility in the world. And we hope it remains that way for a long time.”