GTAT wins approval for big expansion at Merrimack facility

Planning board OKs renovation, addition for sapphire manufacturing


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GT Advanced Technologies is moving to transform its research and development facility in Merrimack into what would primarily be a sapphire manufacturing facility – a project that includes expansion of the plant by nearly 40 percent and the creation of nearly 100 new parking spaces.

The plans were revealed in an application filed last month to the town planning board.

But the company would not say whether it will use the facility to help create materials for Apple mobile devices, as its newly opened plant in Arizona does, or other purposes.

“Recent contacts with global manufacturing partners are driving the need to grow their current facility to reflect changes to their operations from R&D focus to a more manufacturing focus,” was how Tim Thompson, Merrimack’s community development director put at the March 27 meeting.

Thompson said that the company was just considering expansion in Merrimack and urged the board at its April 2 meeting to meet the “aggressive schedule needed by GTAT to consider remaining in the community.”

The board agreed, voting unanimously to approve the project at that very meeting.

But in a written statement to NHBR, the company cautioned that it still might not go ahead with the plan.

“The plan that was discussed at the planning board should not be interpreted as GT’s plan of record for current or future planned activity at our Merrimack facility,” wrote spokesman Jeff Nestel-Patt. “Merrimack remains important to GT’s business as it is our key R&D facility for many of our current and future products. As part of the development of new products and materials, we will support the development activity with light manufacturing. “

GTAT’s biggest known global contract at the moment is a more than $500 million deal with Apple to manufacture the materials used to produce durable glass for smartphones.

That agreement represented a major shift in strategy for GTAT, which had previously focused on manufacturing the means of production not production of a commodity itself.

It also was a major step in its attempt to diversify.

GTAT – which went public in 2008 as GT Solar Technologies – started out building equipment to produce silicon material for solar cell manufacturers. But as the solar market collapsed, the company in 2010 bought a company in Salem, Mass., which was primarily manufacturing sapphire materials for the LED lighting market.

At the time, the company wanted to sell the technology and mainly used the Salem facility for demonstration purposes. But as the LED market also slowed, it sought other uses for the technology, focusing on mobile communications.

The Apple deal changed all that, but the deal was to be fulfilled in a new manufacturing facility in Arizona, near Apple’s subcontractors in Mexico.

But GTAT also has been “aggressive” in its schedule to move ahead with revamping its Merrimack facility, hiring Highpoint Engineering of in Bridgewater, Mass., to draw up plans over a period of several weeks – a process that would normally take several months.

The plan calls for renovation and expansion of the existing 117,532-square-foot facility, adding some 46,000 square feet onto the front.

The company will install six transformers, two cooling towers and two inert gas tanks measuring up to 10 feet in diameter and 18 feet in height. Since the building’s expansion will encroach on 32 parking spaces in the existing 211-space lot, the company will build a new 128-space parking lot.

The new lot would accommodate “administrative staff coming from other locations” as well as swing shift employees at the company’s planned around-the-clock manufacturing operation, explained Michael Fabbiano, vice president/managing principal, at Highpoint.

But GTAT would not say whether that material will be used to help fulfill the Apple order. While its contract with Apple does have non-compete clause, the company could provide sapphire materials for other uses, such as LED lighting or scanner screens used in supermarkets.

A previous version of this story misquoted Tim Thompson, Merrimack’s community development director, on a likely reason for GTAT's possible expansion in New Hampshire.


 

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