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Hologic plans growth despite chip shortage

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Sen. Tom Carper talks with Anthony Alvarez, equipment engineering manager at Hologic, during a visit Friday. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

GLASGOW – The medical technology company Hologic has big plans to build a new $24 million research and development, and manufacturing center at its Glasgow Business Community campus, but it has one major obstacle: semiconductors.

The small components that manage the flow of electronics are ubiquitous in modern life, even if rarely seen, as they power smartphones, computers, home appliances, cars and more. After a slowdown in production through the COVID pandemic and a subsequent explosion of demand for the chips in the global recovery, the components are in a drastic shortage.

Hologic, which builds and repairs high-tech 3D mammography units at its Glasgow campus, is among those who are left fighting to secure whatever chips they can.

Brian Brooks, senior director of operations for Hologic, presents the company’s need for semiconductor chips to Sen. Carper on Friday. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Brian Brooks, senior director of operations for Hologic, told Delaware Business Times that the company has been placing chip orders about a year in advance of when they would be needed. They also tried to stockpile chips and other components as much as possible, renting warehouses to store those that were piling up, but supplies are still stretched thin.

In the past year, the company quickly set up a small workspace in the plant where they could refurbish used semiconductor chips. That has especially helped the company’s repair work, as it sends temporary pieces back to hospitals and doctor’s offices so they can continue to offer mammography services while Hologic diagnoses and fixes unit problems.

Still, a shortage of semiconductor chips is concerning to Hologic as they are integral to its ability to produce more mammography units in their planned expansion that has already begun. On Friday, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who mentioned Hologic’s concerns during a speech on the Senate floor in July while voting for the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, visited the Glasgow campus to hear directly from company leaders.

“The past year has been a challenge for us. Our manufacturing volumes were cut in half from historic levels,” Brooks told the senator. “We’ve had a lot of associates who are fearful of their jobs, but we have made a commitment to not to do any layoffs as a result of the chips crisis.”

Erik Anderson, president of breast and skeletal health solutions for Hologic, noted that hundreds of units were in the company’s backlog due in part to the shortage, with some customers waiting a year for delivery. That hurts more than Hologic’s bottom line, he added.

“The 3D mammogram detects 20% to 60% more invasive cancers up to 18 months earlier and reduces the false positives for the patient who’s nervous about coming back for an unnecessary biopsy. So, it’s life-changing for the patient and helps save costs to the health care system,” he explained.

Anderson made a small lobbying pitch to help prioritize such health care needs with semiconductor chips as they compete for limited resources.

“Everyone’s aware of the global supply chain issues, but medical devices make up less than 1% of the demand for chips, so we’re competing with automotive and electronics, etc. Everybody’s in this battle right now. But for us, it’s a fight to get to the top of the list or to have some priority, because it’s life-saving devices,” he said.

When asked later about the potential of prioritization of health care needs for semiconductor chips, Carper told DBT that it was probably possible. He noted that federal legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act is routinely followed by guidance by the federal agency that would administer grants, in this case the U.S. Department of Commerce, which could help direct some resources to the industry.

Hologic’s future plans

Hologic is embarking on a $24 million expansion of its Glasgow plant. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The expansion by Hologic, which received nearly $2.2 million in state taxpayer-backed grants earlier this year to support the project, is a major move for the Massachusetts-based global company. It will close its Danbury, Conn., manufacturing plant in March 2025 and move it to Delaware while also consolidating several R&D operations around the country and bringing them here too.

Brooks explained that Hologic preferred to expand in Delaware due to its proximity to major metro markets, its access to talent out of local universities, its strong health care systems and because the company owned its land here rather than leasing as it does elsewhere.

A worker repairs a detector unit in a Hologic 3Dimensions unit at the Glasgow plant on Friday. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

With about 175 employees onsite now, Hologic has plans to push that to about 400 in the coming years with the expansion, adding entry-level manufacturing roles up to leadership and degree-holding technical ones. While electromechanical and coding skills are desired, the company has such a customized product that they train their own entry-level associates. Many of the workers onsite Friday were longtime Delawareans, ranging from a few years with the company to more than four decades – dating back to when the site was a DuPont division.

 “We primarily hire people who are passionate and curious,” Brooks said.

The Glasgow site has historically made the detector, or the “heart and brains” on a 3D mammography unit, but it will bring manufacturing of the gantry and acquisition workstation here now too, completing entire units from start to finish in-state for the first time, Brooks said.

On Friday, Carper got a closeup look at the production of the highly technical detectors made in sealed rooms with air 10,000 times cleaner than common. Workers dressed head-to-toe in surgical scrubs carefully prepared the proprietary plates with 2.5 times more pixels than a 4K TV, cleaning them and preparing them for installation into the detectors.

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