Springtown – A Hard Drive Factory Like No Other

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Max Smolaks returns from Derry with a new fondness for hard drives and respect for people who make them

Among all the glitz of twenty-first century technology, it’s easy to forget about the humble hard disk drive, pretty much the only component (other than an occasional cooling fan) with actual moving parts that can be found inside a modern PC.

You might expect all hard drives manufacturing to have moved to the Far East. You might also see hard drives as an endangered species, about to be displaced by solid state flash memory. You would be wrong on both counts.

Most of the data in the world is still stored on rapidly rotating discs coated with magnetic material. And a lot of hard drive components are made in Seagate’s Springtown factory in Derry, to be shipped and assembled in China, Taiwan and other far-off places.

Since 1993, the factory has bcome an essential part of the city. The taxi driver who picked us up from the airport has been carrying engineers over the River Foyle since long before the “Good Friday” agreement was signed. The hotels here host regular Seagate functions, and crowds of foreign physics graduates promenade on the riverbank.

Today, a quarter of all drive heads (or “recording transducers”, if we want to be technical) in the world are made at Springtown. It is one of only six such factories in the world, and it will never be transferred abroad. Here’s why.

The magic of hard drives

Seagate has been a leader in the development of hard drives ever since releasing the ST-506 in 1980, the very first 5.25-inch drive with a then-impressive capacity of 5 Mbyte. The company shipped 55.7 million units in the third quarter of 2012, and its market share currently stands around 41 percent.

Side (Custom)Springtown is mainly a wafer facility – it manufactures circular ceramic “tiles” 200mm in diameter, with around 100,000 recording heads on each. State-of-the-art doesn’t even begin to describe it – according to Dr Brian Burns, VP of Springtown operations, there isn’t anything like this factory in the entire world.

There are approximately 950 steps necessary to build a single wafer, involving over a hundred chemical components and more than 70 pieces of sophisticated equipment. Each wafer travels 16 miles through the factory, and takes 14 weeks to complete. Only 75 percent of finished ceramic disks will be free of defects – which, when you consider 950 individual steps, does not sound too bad. In total, around two million recording heads are made at Springtown each day.

The process cannot be transferred to Asia because it’s capital-intensive, not labour-intensive. If anything, a drop of sweat inside Springtown’s “cleanrooms” would be outright dangerous. Some of the machines here cost upwards of £5 million, and the factory has to have 20 units of each. Packing up and shipping them abroad just wouldn’t make sense.

And it was all yellow

Inside the cleanroom, every hair and particle of dust is a potential contaminant. This is a world of shiny steel and white boiler suits. It put me in mind of the famous meth lab from Breaking Bad, multiplied by a thousand.

The temperatures here are controlled to a degree. All lights inside the production area are yellow, and there are no windows to the outside, since white light can disrupt photosensitive chemicals. You will find no paper here either – Springtown replaced all traces of the special film-covered material with electronics a few years ago, just to be on the safe side.

Engineers work in shifts, round the clock, every single day of the year. Delays are unacceptable – why own the equipment worth hundreds of millions if you don’t use it? The only holiday shared by all employees is Christmas.

The facility is isolated against earthquakes, but unfortunately nothing can protect against accidents. Three years ago, a pipe burst inside one of the cleanrooms with catastrophic consequences. Seagate had to stop production for several days, and get a specialised team of engineers from Japan to mitigate the damage.

Below, you can see exactly how it looks like:

Seagate Springtown

Image 1 of 10

The dressing room
© Lorcan Doherty Photography June 13th 2013

What’s next?

While the factory keeps running 24/7, Seagate’s R&D department is busy finding ways to improve hard drive capacity. Among other things, it cooperates with British universities, launching eight new research projects every year.

According to Robert Lamberton, recording head design director at Seagate, the next step in hard drive evolution is the Shingle Magnetic Recording (SMR) – a method that allows to squeeze more tracks onto a disk surface by partially overlapping them. SMR depends on the same HDD hardware components, but requires specialised software, and should help mass-produce hard drives that break the 1TB/in2 barrier.

By 2015-2016, Seagate hopes to launch hard drives that feature Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR). With HAMR, the recording head includes a tiny laser that heats up the medium before information is written. The technology offers higher thermal stability and could take information density to an unbelievable 5TB/in2, but there are still plenty of kinks to iron out.

In the nearer future, Seagate plans to offer larger hard drives – not just in terms of capacity, but in physical size. The enterprise environment has no use for storage devices that are 5mm thin – it needs Terabytes. And at the moment, adding more disks and recording heads seems the best way to grow these Terabytes.

As for filling hard drives with helium – a concept heavily promoted by Seagate’s competitor Western Digital – the company is adopting a “wait and see” approach. True, Lamberton says using the inert gas makes physical and mechanical sense, but there are still issues with sealing it inside for the lifetime of the drive, since helium atoms are so incredibly small and will leak through the smallest of gaps.

Despite the rise of flash memory, hard disk drives will continue to store our data for decades to come. Hidden inside every enclosure is a thing of beauty, a perfect mechanism that blends electrical and mechanical, digital and analogue. Long live the hard drive!

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