Cutting through rocky waters

Atmel Corp., a Colorado Springs manufacturer, knows that maintaining effective water-treatment-system operations is crucial.

By Ronnie Mills, CPMM 


Founded in 1984, Atmel Corp. is headquartered in San Jose, Calif., with principal manufacturing facilities in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Nantes and Rousset, France; Heilbronn, Germany; and North Tyneside, England. Atmel designs, develops and manufactures semiconductors for nonvolatile and embedded memory, logic, analog, micro-controller products and system-level integration.

The company employs about 1,800 employees at its Colorado Springs site. With a staff of 77, the site facilities team is responsible for environmental, health, safety, security, engineering, buildings and grounds, operations and maintenance. The primary function of site facilities is to provide sustaining services in support of the site's manufacturing, memory test and administrative functions.

Manufacturing in Colorado Springs requires a continuous supply of large volumes of high-quality reverse osmosis deionized water (RODI). During peak manufacturing, the site easily can process more than 500 million gal. of water in a year. Thus, raw feedwater quality affects the ability to maintain critical water specifications. Managing the effectiveness of water treatment system operations is paramount.


Figure 1. Removing minerals raised the cycles of concentration (Cycles), eliminating scrubber scaling and saving millions of gallons per year (MG/yr).

Damped down bottom line
The manufacturing site faced several water quality issues simultaneously. First, the water treatment process was obsolete and not well managed. The vendor's inability to improve the existing program to accommodate complex and changing water conditions exacerbated an already difficult situation.

Second, the most severe Western drought in three years (and since the dustbowl days of the 1930s) was worsening. Aquifers and reservoirs reached all-time lows, thus degrading water quality.

Third, the City of Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) was forced to activate Pinello Wells, a regional source of water infrequently used. Although CSU's hydraulic model indicated this "blend" would solve the flow/delivery issues, the reduced water quality was becoming detrimental to Atmel's bottom line.

Because of the implications to manufacturing, Site Facilities formed a team to resolve the water issue as quickly and effectively as possible. The first step was to contact chemical water treatment companies for bids. The vendors' bids detailed the technology that would counteract the water chemistry changes and included an implementation plan that would not jeopardize the manufacturing effort. The major factor in Site Facilities' final selection of Ondeo-Nalco (ON) was the vendor's clear, concise plan that supported implementation well within project deadlines.

The team evaluated an array of factors to integrate ON's plan into the project work process. These included, among other things:
  • The current system's level of operation.
  • The expected rate of water degradation.
  • Support of critical production.
  • Return on investment (ROI).
  • The complexity and learning curve for new technology.
  • The ease of incorporation into existing predictive/preventive maintenance workloads.
  • The potential effect on production equipment.


    Figure 2. Reduced water consumption adds up to a projected annualized water savings of 53.5 million gal. per year, benefiting the water-depleted region and helping the City of Colorado Springs Water Department supply higher quality.

Target: scale
Once the Atmel/Ondeo-Nalco (AON) team completed its assessments, the implementation process began. The newer, less congested systems in Building 5 (Fab 5) were the most critical and the easiest to modify. The problem there was calcium-based scaling of the polypropylene spherical fill media (SFM) in the building's acid scrubber system. Scaling decreases system efficiency and SFM life expectancy. The existing chemical treatment system required high concentrations and frequent treatment to minimize deposition of hardened precipitate.

A new water softener eliminated the scaling problem as well as increased the cycles of concentration (COC) (Figure 1), thus increasing the ROI for chemical treatment, resource utilization, fill media replacement cost and overall water consumption. Reverse osmosis was evaluated, but at $8 to $9 per 1,000 gal. of water, was deemed cost prohibitive.

Cycles of concentration can be based on any constituent in a water system. COC is generally calculated either on the basis of specific conductance or some infinitely soluble ion that isn't being added via chemical treatment. Simply put, COC is a measure of the system's ability to reuse water with reduced blowdown frequency. A reduction in COC, on the other hand, is attributable to an increase in scalant concentration (sulfate, calcium or silica). Because these constituents work in concert and it is rare that the concentration of only one constituent changes at a time, we use the ON "Microcape" program to model the solubility of any potential scalant as the water changes.

The second application the team chose was a sulfuric acid injection system (SAIS). This effort proved to be considerably more complex and costly. The SAIS minimizes the effects of high alkalinity/calcium water sources and increases the overall cycles of concentration. The average COC was 2.5 before the SAIS went online but, after commissioning, is now in the 7 range.

Better water for all
Peripheral benefits are not often highlighted. However, this project has a few worth noting. It became apparent to the teams that the lessons learned could easily be transferred to the City of Colorado Springs Water Department.

Working with city utility contacts established another valuable process link that ensured not only the transfer of knowledge and experience, but also provided the means to improve the quality of the incoming raw feed water. During joint city and AON meetings, pH control of the incoming city water surfaced as the most easily attacked issue. In addition, pH control would serve as a supplemental buffer to protect our reverse osmosis feed water. By the time the city commissioned its pH control system, the Pinello Wells raw water feed was ready for springtime activation.

Based on the success of this initial effort, the city and AON team elected to remain intact to provide continuous improvement for the benefit of every user of Colorado Springs municipal water.

The effort provided five main benefits to Atmel and the surrounding community:

  • Water conservation.
  • Better resource utilization.
  • ISO 14001/Six Sigma.
  • Higher water quality.
  • Lower operating cost.

The water conservation numbers speak for themselves. The initial forecast was for an annual savings of about 30 million gal. However, based on the new operations, the outlook is better (Figure 2). We expect an annual water savings of 53.5 million gal., potable water that directly supports the Colorado Springs region. In concert with that effort is the overall chemical treatment reduction. Between the scrubbers and cooling towers, our calculations reflect a potential savings of more than 25 tons of chemical treatment chemicals annually (Figure 3).

While the water and chemical savings alone justify the effort, the additional environmental "green" improvements represent Atmel's support of our community and national responsibilities as a whole.


Figure 3. Cooling tower corrosion/scale inhibitor usage has been reduced 75%. Total scrubber and cooling tower savings should exceed 25 tons per year.

More from the plant
Resource utilization can't be overstated. During these times of "do more with less," it's imperative to obtain the most effective and efficient use of available resources. Based on the treatment program's automation and the efficiency gains high-quality feed water offers, the resource utilization factor has increased by 22%, which translates into an ability to complete a greater percentage of preventive maintenance hours in the relevant plant area.

ISO 14001/Six Sigma efforts are becoming a way of life in the semiconductor industry. Customers demand environmentally conscious suppliers and expect nothing less than stellar, continuous improvement. The efforts to improve water systems have netted solid scores in both categories.

Recently, Atmel earned its ISO 14001 certification, in part because of the water quality and water conservation effort. Periodic customer audits require documented improvements that meet the intent of Six Sigma. Our ability to demonstrate water system improvements as well as subsequent program enhancements have been a significant factor in earning top scores from our customers.

Water quality affects the most important aspects of project justification , technology and cost. Incoming quality water also affects other variables that have a direct bearing on system integrity, operational cost, resource utilization and life cycle. The benefits depicted here are a small sampling of the overall importance of water quality. For example, "simplification" of formerly complex, interdependent water processing equipment sums up one of the tangible effects of water quality. Incoming water quality to the RODI system has a direct effect on membrane, resin bed and filter media life, regeneration cycles and contamination issues, each of which is measured for its performance and service life. If any component's life is shortened or if biological fouling complicates water treatment, it will affect resources and cost.

Operating costs play a significant role in Atmel's ability to remain competitive. The facilities department is responsible for minimizing site costs wherever possible and for maximizing the effectiveness of the site support systems. The Atmel Facilities department at Colorado Springs has demonstrated through efforts like this the ability to minimize cost and maximize support system effectiveness. Between the cost reduction at the cooling towers and the Building 5 scrubbers, the Colorado Springs site will enjoy annualized operating cost savings of more than $170,000. 

Ronnie Mills, CPMM, is site facilities operation manager at Atmel Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo. Reach him at rmills@cso.atmel.com and (719) 540-3245.

Figures courtesy of Atmel Corp.

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