Korea Technology Review2009.03.30 23:31


How do you know spring has arrived in Seoul? The answer: A sandstorm. Looming clouds of yellow sand blowing from China's Gobi Desert is the clear visual evidence for Koreans that long winter is finally over. The giant stream of yellow sand even blows over the Pacific Ocean and was once spotted as far a place as in California.

For Korean semiconductor and flat-screen manufacturers, the sandstorm is also an urgent warning to raise their dust defense to full alert. Lee Hae-sun, a line manager at LG Display's Paju fabrication plant says "it has already taken every preemptive measure in store" as the worst sandstorm in 58 years is forecast to come this spring. 

Memory chips and flat screens are assembled in so-called clean rooms, where the dust level is controlled at Class 1 -- no more than one dust particle bigger than 0.5 micrometer is allowed per each cubic square feet. Hard to grasp this? Imagine a coin-sized blob of dust particles in a mid-sized city. Any slight leak of yellow sand could mean a spike in the deficiency rate among finished components that would potentially lead to a billion-dollar loss.

When tons of yellow sand are blowing over Korea every spring, their fight against the yellow storm is a make-or-break moment not only for Korean manufacturers but also for the global high-tech industry. 

The global supply chain of DRAMs and flat screens can fall into disarray if the sandstorm ever disrupts those fragile fabrication lines--when massive earthquake attacked Japan in 1995 and Taiwan in 1999, the countries' high-tech industry had to spend for over a couple of months fine-tuning assembly lines until the production capacity was normalized back to previous level. 

Korea is now the No. 1 country in terms of DRAM and flat screen shipments. Korean Air was able to grab top market share in global air freight business by air-shipping those precious electronic components to the world. 

Their first line of defense against yellow sand is a carbon air filtration system. A line manager at Samsung says "since the carbon filtration alone was not an enough defense in time of the sandstorm attack," they blocked air stream entirely to the most sensitive area, where critical components are assembled.

High-tech assembly lines are mostly run by computers to minimize human contact with the sensitive equipment but some amount of on-site human supervision is always inevitable. When human supervisors enter into the clean room, they have to go through multiple air-showers in airlocks after putting on white dust suits. Samsung doubled air shower time required for its workers during the sandstorm event this spring. 

Every risk entails a new opportunity, however. While Samsung, LG and Hyundai are struggling to stop yellow sand affecting production, shares of Korean pharmaceutical companies and air cleaner manufactures posted a sharp rise Monday in the Korean stock market as Korean consumers are expected to buy more eye drops and air cleaning devices.

Struggle or benefit, Koreans are worried about whether the alarming deforestation of the Gobi Desert -- despite China's best efforts - could mean that they are ultimately fighting a losing battle.
Posted by PSB

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