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Korean high-tech sector braces for sandstorm
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승인 2010.05.14  11:23:03
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▲ Every spring the changing winds bring clouds of yellow sand from China that congest the air and cause companies that manufacture highly sensitive materials to imagine new ways to keep the grit out of their products. Photo courtesy NASA

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

For Korean semiconductor and flat-screen manufacturers mostly clustered near Seoul, the sandstorm is also an urgent warning to raise their dust defenses to full alert. Lee Hae Seon, a line manager at LG Display’s Paju fabrication plant said to local media, “We have already taken every preemptive measure in store” as a series of sandstorms is forecast to come again 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 cubic square foot. To grasp that, imagine only a coin-sized blob of dust particles in a mid-sized city. Any presence of yellow sand could mean a spike in the deficiency rate among finished components and could potentially lead to a billion-dollar loss.

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

The global supply chain of DRAMs and flat screens could fall into disarray if the sand-storms ever disrupt those fragile fabrication lines — when massive earthquakes struck Japan in 1995 and Taiwan in 1999, the countries’ high-tech industry had to spend months fine-tuning assembly lines until their production capacities were back to the previous level.

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

The first line of defense against the yellow sand is a carbon air filtration system. A line manager at Samsung said that, “since the carbon filtration alone is not an adequate defense in times of sandstorm,” the company would block the air stream entirely to the most sensitive areas, 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 necessary. When human supervisors enter the clean rooms, they have to go through multiple air-showers in airlocks after putting on white dust suits. Samsung doubled the air shower time required for its workers during the sand-storm 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 manufacturers usually post a sharp rise in the Korean stock market during the storm as Korean consumers 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.




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