Discs to chips: the step up for a high-tech center

This Rocky Mountain city, with a strong military presense, has begun to shed its role as just a remote site for national electronic firms to set up assembly plants.

Colorado Springs has started to flex some innovative engineering muscle.

''It's still a manufacturing center here - but that's changing fast,'' says John Riggen, manager of the Colorado Springs division of Hewlett-Packard Company.

Hewlett-Packard and Ampex Corporation, a maker of audio-visual equipment, are the old-timers of high technology in Colorado Springs, going back some 20 years.

As a matter of corporate policy, Hewlett-Packard divisions are ''verticalized ,'' each one functioning as a small company on its own. And so the Colorado Springs division, 2,400 strong, does the research and design as well as the manufacturing for its three product lines: oscilloscopes, graphic displays, and logic development systems. These last are used in software design; they show how a program will function when put through a computer, thus enabling an engineer to give the program a ''dry run,'' so to speak.

But other firms, too, are starting to put design ''brains'' into the Colorado Springs area as well as manufacturing ''brawn.''

Digital Equipment Corporation's plant has graduated from making computer-storage disc drives to designing them as well. The computer giant's latest two entries in the field were both designed here.

Mostek, a semiconductor producer that was spun off from Texas Instruments and has a plant in Colorado Springs, has been bought by United Technologies. Mostek, in turn, has put in a microelectronics research center in Colorado Springs.

And Inmos, capitalized by the National Enterprise Board of Britain, (now part of the British Technology Group) has chosen Colorado Springs for its US headquarters. This firm, in a year and a half of production, has captured 70 percent of the world market for very-high-speed static RAM (random access memory) computer ''chips'' using metal oxidized semiconductors technology.

When Dr. Richard Petritz, founder of Inmos, was getting ready to launch his firm, there were only three employees, including himself.

Inmos's agreement with the National Enterprise Board in Britain required half of the firm's operations to be in that nation, so the firm has a research and design facility in Bristol, England, that works on microprocessors. A manufacturing facility has been set up across the Bristol channel in economically depressed (and tax-break-laden) South Wales.

Inmos, like all these firms, has been carefully courted by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. Bringing the clean electronics industry to town has been the centerpiece of Colorado Springs' economic development program for the past decade.

The program grew out of the community's concern that its economy was too dependent on tourism and the military (Fort Carson, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters, and the US Air Force Academy).

Developer Steve Schuck speaks of the city as ''a community that writes its own destiny and controls its own fate.''

Different communities have developed different strategies for attracting high-technology industry. A key feature of the program in Colorado Springs, according to Frank O'Donnell of the chamber's Economic Development Department, is the involvement of firms already here in bringing other firms to the area. State government, on the other hand, has played virtually no role here.

The electronics firms have been drawn by the same quality-of-life attractions and lower housing costs as all the other newcomers - as well as the feeling that the ''Silicon Valley'' of California has gone about as far as it can go.

''With 66 pages of want ads in the San Jose Mercury-News, it's too late to start another company there,'' says Dr. Petritz.

Colorado Springs has a fairly diversified electronics industry: about one-third semiconductor production; one-third defense-related aerospace technology; and one-third telecommunications, audiovisual equipment, and specialty products.

Like most of high technology, these firms have felt the stagnation of the recent recession. They're generally not laying people off, but there are not many plans for big expansion.

Two factors are cited as constraints on electronics-industry growth in Colorado Springs: lack of direct airline connections to major cities and lack of a good, symbiotic relationship with a local university.

Mr. O'Donnell is optimistic that both situations will improve within the next couple of years, however.

The higher education issue may prove the tougher nut to crack.

High-technology firms usually regard a university as essential for a city in which they would locate.

When the first electronics firms moved in during the early '60s, ''There were promises from the state at the highest levels that a university would be provided,'' says Michael Ciletti. He's an associated professor of electrical engineering at the instititution that was provided, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. It began as an ''extension,'' as some still call it, in 1965.

But only recently have state officials begun to respond to the educational needs of the city, says the engineering professor. ''The Colorado Commission of Higher Education has at times been a stumblingblock in the university's (UCCS's) attempt to establish programs to attract high technology,'' Professor Ciletti says, choosing his words carefully.

The engineering program at UCCS has experienced 20 percent annual growth over the past five years, he says, and now has some 500 students.

Graduate programs in engineering spark a sort of chicken-and-egg debate, however. Although UCCS is hailed by some of the citizens as a ''comprehensive master's degree instititution working on a PhD in microelectronics,'' Professor Ciletti is a bit less sanguine.

A doctoral program helps attract better people to teach in the master's program, he says. He speaks of the need for a certain ''critical mass,'' a body of scientists large enough and strong enough to attract more of the same.

As it is, the faculty is heavy on part-timers who hold industry jobs during the day, which limits their contact with students. There aren't enough of the sort of senior faculty mentors under whose wings younger academics like to gather.

The school has been able to hire new faculty members all right - but it has lost others to industry. ''We've defied the odds to go this far,'' says Professor Ciletti. ''But people are taking 40-percent pay cuts to come from Palo Alto. You can't sell the idea that a view of Pikes Peak will fill an empty stomach.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.