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January 27, 2007

Inmos workers recall semiconductor heyday


Fifteen years after losing their jobs, people who worked for Inmos Corp. still gather regularly to remember the heyday of the Colorado Springs semiconductor industry. On Friday, about 30 met at Giuseppe’s Depot Restaurant.

Springs-based Inmos employed more than 1,200 here at its peak before falling victim to an industry slump triggered by Japanese manufacturers dumping cheap chips on the worldwide market. Inmos laid off most of its staff in the mid-1980s and shut down in 1992.

“Inmos was the most successful failure ever in Colorado Springs because of all of the companies it spawned,” said Doug Butler, who spent five years at Inmos as an engineer and now works for United Memories Inc., where half of the 25 employees are Inmos alumni.

Besides United Memories, former Inmos employees helped start Simtek Corp., COVA Technologies Inc., Ceram Inc. and nearly a dozen other companies. Many former Inmos employees went on to work for other local chip companies, including Ramtron International Corp.

“Inmos brought lots of smart people to the semiconductor industry in Colorado Springs to do great things,” Butler said. “While I was there, I learned what it was like to work with a really good team of people.”

The reunion came less than two weeks after Intel Corp. announced plans to sell its 1,000-employee Springs semiconductor plant and close it if no buyer is found. If the plant closes, Atmel Corp. would operate the city’s only remaining chip-manufacturing plant. At the industry’s peak, Inmos and five others operated plants here.

The Inmos reunions and a Web page for former employees to stay in contact are about all that is left of Inmos. Financed by $100 million from the British government, the company was sold to a British conglomerate and later resold to what is now STMicroelectronics.

Ken Heddings, who now runs a technical support center for Actiontec Electronics Inc., said employees still enter their contact information on the site, which he has operated for about a decade, and dozens have attended annual reunions since the mid-1990s.

“There were hundreds of us in our late 20s and early 30s. It was almost like a college campus. Many of us grew up there,” Heddings said.

Sue Champion, a production planner at Inmos who now does a similar job at Ramtron, said her co-workers and friends don’t understand why she would take time off from work to get together with those she worked with for five years during the early 1980s.

“People I talk to today just don’t understand the mystique and the fun we had there,” said Champion, who also worked for Cray Computer Corp. in the former Inmos plant. “Part of it was the times. We didn’t have a lot of worries and were just able to do our jobs.”

One former Inmos employee managed to parlay his job as the company’s final local representative into a career. After supervising the plant’s shutdown and sending equipment to the new owners, he later formed a company to sell equipment from closing chip plants.

“One of the last things I did was take a $500,000 check from Seymour Cray as a down payment on the (former Inmos) building,” said Curt Stearns, who now owns Asset Recovery International.

He said he hopes to do the same job for Intel if the chip giant ends up closing its local plant.