Bookham Technology opens plant in Columbia

British company makes components for fiber-optic networks

January 30, 2001|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

In rooms so sterile that only those clad in gloves and special jumpsuits can enter, workers will soon begin to manufacture the key ingredient for Bookham Technology PLC, silicon wafers.

Bookham makes components that help information flow along fiber-optic networks. Yesterday, the British company officially opened its North American headquarters and manufacturing plant in Howard County.

What sets Bookham apart from other component-makers is that it uses silicon, rather than silica, to make its product.

The two products are similar, but silica is more widely used for components.

There is debate in the industry as to which is better, but those at Bookham say silicon allows the company to mass manufacture. It also let the company move into Columbia's former Honeywell International Inc. building, which is equipped with the special "clean rooms" and equipment needed to manufacture the silicon chips that Bookham makes.

"Because Bookham has a silicon process, it can just dive into a facility like this," said Andrew G. Rickman, Bookham's founder, chairman and chief executive officer.

The 150,000-square-foot plant in Columbia's Oakland Ridge Industrial Park is expected to be operating Thursday.

It should be manufacturing test products about two weeks after that and producing Bookham's silicon technology by the end of the fiscal third quarter, said Andy Quinn, the company's president of North American operations.

In Columbia, Bookham will make one of its core products, which transforms digital data from a home or office computer into light pulses and transmits it through a fiber-optic network.

Some of those products will help fill a multimillion-dollar order that Bookham announced last week with Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd. As part of that deal, the company said it would supply up to 10,000 pieces of equipment to Fujitsu each month this year.

Eventually, Bookham is to use the Maryland plant to manufacture its other core product, which can take streams of data from several home computers in one city, pull them together and haul them to another city.

Bookham has 30 employees for the Columbia building and is expected to employ up to 1,000 there.

Company officials seem confident that Bookham is destined to grow, despite a falling stock price and an announcement last week that its fourth quarter will be weaker than expected.

Bookham is expecting a net loss for the fourth quarter, which ended on Dec. 31, of $15 million to $15.5 million. Previously, the company was expecting a net loss of about $11 million.

Rickman said the adjustment resulted from costs associated with leasing the building in Columbia. When it found the Howard County space, Bookham had plans to build a manufacturing plant, and the company had to absorb money spent on that project.

"Finding this place was unexpected," Rickman said.

Bookham's American depository receipts trade on the Nasdaq stock market. Its shares fell from a 52-week high of $84.62 to as low as $11.94 this month. They closed yesterday at $16.50, down 50 cents.

Rickman attributed the stock drop to volatility in the market.

"It's the short-term dynamics of the stock market that affect the stock price much more than what the company's doing," he said.

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