Project Spotlight: Thinfilm Electronics

Thin Film Electronics ASA (“Thinfilm”) is a pioneer in printed electronics technology and processes, specializing in near-field communication technology (NFC). There is huge market demand for NFC today, particularly for smart-packaging solutions, so the company needed a new ultra-high volume manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley to ramp up their production from 24 million to 5 billion chips per year.

To make it happen, Thinfilm contracted South Bay Construction (SBC) to revamp a semiconductor fabrication plant (“fab”) in North San Jose once used by Qualcomm. The initial contract was for a tenant improvement (TI) project scheduled to take six months, but its scope increased substantially when Thinfilm asked SBC to handle the installation of its brand new 2,000-square-foot fab as well. The fab had to include specifications such as a Class 1000 cleanroom and a chemical treatment facility. So what started as a single, relatively straightforward job turned into two complex undertakings — and the end result was a dynamic, sophisticated space that perfectly met Thinfilm’s functional needs.

The Tenant Improvement

One of SBC’s biggest tasks at the start was taking an outdated building and bringing it in line with today’s design trends. We’re talking open concept spaces with exposed ceilings, polished concrete floors, huge common rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, and glass doors that open onto large outdoor areas. Silicon Valley’s tech companies love these features, and they’re easy to incorporate into new builds. However, exposing the inner layers of pre-existing architecture can pose technical and aesthetic challenges, since the substructures were never intended to be seen.

With that in mind, SBC started its redesign with a complete demolition of the building’s old interiors so that it could create the environment Thinfilm wanted. The goal was to build it from scratch but make it look like it belonged to the original building. Demolition can result in a lot of trash, but SBC was conscientious in cutting back waste, salvaging materials from the former structure, and reengineering all of the existing mechanical equipment such as the VAV boxes. This took additional time and effort but was well worth it in the end. In addition, Thinfilm saved money and minimized waste by buying the building’s original furniture.

Perhaps the toughest part of the TI process was re-roofing the entire facility. SBC had to contend with relentless winter rain — and while the roofs were being redone, the semiconductor fab was being recommissioned beneath. This made for a high-stakes situation: if any water leaked, it would have contaminated the Class 1000 cleanroom and could have done irreparable damage to the expensive manufacturing equipment inside. But the team handled the task with expert care and coordination, and there were no issues or injuries.

The Semiconductor Fab

When Thinfilm awarded the contract for its semiconductor fab, SBC brought on a second superintendent to oversee the completion of the TI. The original superintendent began the process of transforming the old fab into Thinfilm’s new top-of-the-line facility. The timeframe for this part of the project was incredibly tight: SBC had just three months to finish the fabrication plant.

As was the case with the TI renovation, the choice to remodel rather than rebuild came with certain inevitable complications. The most difficult was the fact that the former fab was contaminated with dangerous and volatile chemicals including hydrochloric acid and xylene gas. The process of decommissioning the equipment, cleaning the space, and getting Thinfilm’s highly specialized tools online in the new facility was extremely hazardous. It took frequent safety meetings, extensive protocols, and coordination with the San Jose Fire Department and Hazmat teams.

The necessity of a Class 1000 cleanroom added another layer of complexity. Air quality had to remain at a rate of 1,000 particles per cubic foot, everyone entering the fab required smocks, gloves, and hairnets, and all the equipment had to be sterile.

Building Connections

Considering all these factors, it might seem miraculous that SBC finished Thinfilm’s semiconductor fab on time and on budget — but success was never in question. The company’s culture of support and collaboration was key in seeing this through. “I’ve worked for a lot of construction companies in this area. One of the things that impresses me about South Bay is how well all of us work together, how everyone draws on each other. I’ve never been in a situation where I actually got a second superintendent to come in and help me finish a project like this,” says SBC superintendent Jim Robie. “I like that about our company. That fab really took all of my attention once it started.”

Now, Thinfilm’s new high-volume semiconductor fabrication plant is bringing the manufacturing of microelectronics back to the Bay Area, after years of companies moving their operations overseas. And as other organizations follow Thinfilm’s lead, SBC is looking forward to building more amazing spaces in Silicon Valley — and building connections with their businesses and people, too.


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