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Case study: Seagate

The firm’s extensive journey in building up a supportive ecosystem to help drive innovation. By Brendan Lafferty, senior director, R&D.

About your organisation

Seagate is one of the largest hard disc drive data storage suppliers in the world, with more than 40,000 employees worldwide located across the US, Asia, and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Seagate’s facility in the UK, based in Northern Ireland, has had a cumulative investment of £1bn over 25 years to enable the manufacturing facility supplying the majority of Seagate’s read-write transducers and extensive development capability.

What are the physics-based technologies that you are developing in your business?

The basics of hard disc drive technology is data is stored on a magnetic disc. The disc spins at high speed and a read-write transducer transverses the disc to record data to the disc (‘write’) or recover data from the disc (‘read’).

Seagate’s facility in Northern Ireland develops and manufactures the read-write transducer. The reader is a spintronic nanotechnology device which is controlled to a width of less than 30 nanometres (nm) and consists of a material stack of more than 20 individual layers of less than 1nm thickness each. The technology required to enable this device requires world-class, cutting-edge physics, chemistry and material science on a nanometre and atomistic scale. The writer is a finely tuned, complex electromagnetic nanostructure.

What is your innovation journey like?

As you learn about different requirements and ideas, you narrow those down, until finally you approach the manufacturing stage and invest in your ideas as you approach production. Ultimately, at the innovation stage, we tend to cast the net quite wide and look at a very diverse set of different ideas.

We’ve got a specific team that investigates more-disruptive concepts, builds prototypes, and does investigative work around that. Depending on how the requirements are evolving from our customers and on how the different solutions line up against those requirements, we can either accelerate some of the concepts, stop or pick learnings from some of the other concepts, until we reach a point where we are choosing a particular winner to go into manufacturing.

Even at the point where we make that decision, there’s still a huge distance to take it from a concept that we want to proceed with, to the manufacturing stage. We employ a rigorous methodology called Six Sigma, which is an industry-standard, data-driven methodology that provides consistent tools and techniques to define and evaluate each step of our process. As an organisation, we compete on a global stage. The facility that we have here is one of five in the world. By extension, you need to compete for people, skills, and talent on a global stage, and you need to have access to the best equipment.

We’ve built up a very strong local government, academic and industry ecosystem where, over the years, we’ve established relationships specifically with Invest Northern Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast. Additionally, the government’s investments have ensured that we continue to be an attractive investment location for both the manufacturing and development of next generation read-write transducers.

Seagate’s investment in academia has promoted some of the key physics and science skills back into Queen’s and other academic institutions. Seagate, and other industrial players, then leverage those investments through the ongoing technical research and continued access to talent that we can hire into our business, so it’s a mutually beneficial ecosystem that we’ve created.

Costs evolve at each stage of the development cycle. Our development portfolio follows a traditional ‘funnel’-type model. At the early phases of development, typically we evaluate a wide range of concepts using prototyping methodologies, which moderate the total cost required to demonstrate each individual concept. As concepts mature and success becomes more evident, typically the investment amounts increase on individual concepts while the spread of concepts continues to streamline. This continues until we unite on a single approach which is heavily invested for manufacturing capability and volume ramp to generate revenue.

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

There are two key considerations to enabling innovation. First is understanding the requirements and identifying the gaps to achieving those requirements. Second is understanding the physics to enable those requirements.

From our perspective, we work very closely with our customers to understand what they need, while understanding what the physics and limitations with our current devices are. Then we define the technical requirements for all of the components. For example, I will take information that our products team are deriving from our customers, and I will reduce that to what it means for the read-write transducer. I work with my team on potential new concepts or solutions using brainstorming, inventions, and other methodologies. Often the solutions are very complex and it can take the team many weeks or months to demonstrate a path to a solution.

How have you gained the skills and knowledge to drive out innovation?

We enable the right people and focus on the right projects, and they drive the solutions. At our facility in Northern Ireland, we have more than 120 PhDs specialising in physics, chemistry and material science – this forms the foundational skills and knowledge required to enable innovation.

We continue to invest heavily in our people for continuous learning and exposure to latest available technology globally. We also form strategic technical partnerships, particularly with academia and with our tooling and consumable suppliers. Frequently the specific technology required to enable our nanotechnology devices does not exist and therefore we work closely with partners to invent and develop new tooling, processes, or other capabilities to enable the next generation of technology.

Seagate has accumulated these skills over 25 years with a rich blend of extensive experience and a continuous influx of fresh ideas from PhD and degree graduates.

What has the result of your journey been?

The result of this journey has been establishing one of the most advanced nanotechnology manufacturing and development facilities in Europe. Our product is very complex, requiring more than 2,000 individual steps to build and taking over six months to produce a completed device.

However even with this complexity, the facility delivers two million read-write transducers every day. Our latest innovation is the introduction of a plasmonic device (in addition to our spintronic reader, magnetic writer and thermomechanical sub-systems) to overcome the latest challenges to shrink the magnetic bit size on our magnetic medium and enable the ever-increasing storage capacity of our hard disc drives.

What tips would you give to businesses developing commercial services underpinned by physics and requiring innovation?

Invest in R&D early for competitive advantage. Continuing to move technology forward is the essence of survival, because if we’re not moving technology forward, then we become obsolete very quickly. Invest in your people, equipment and facility, and form strong partnerships with key stakeholders to underpin world-class physics innovation.

  • These case studies were commissioned by the IOP from CBI Economics