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A Class of Their Own

ClassOne Technology of Kalispell extends business to Japan, plans for major expansion in Kalispell

EVERGREEN — The piece of semiconductor manufacturing equipment had gone around the world before making its way back home, thousands of miles from the Flathead Valley to Japan and back.

Originally built by Semitool, before it became Applied Materials, the Scepter spray acid tool did its job as a wet chemical processor overseas before being purchased back by ClassOne Technology and Equipment to be refurbished up to the latest standards and sold again.

It takes about 10 weeks to gut it, test everything, make necessary replacements, and build it back up to modern code. ClassOne Technology President Kevin Witt said there is no shortage of market opportunity for these refurbished Semitool processors.

ClassOne opened up an operations arm in Kalispell six years ago, refurbishing these machines that create wafers, which hold microchips and go into all types of technology. The company deals in electroplating equipment, electroplating tools, spray solvent tools, and spin rinse dryers.

And while the company, started in Atlanta, Georgia, got its bearings with a branch in Montana, ClassOne is now on the precipice of a $100 million market for its equipment, with plans to double the size of its operations footprint in Kalispell and eventually build a headquarters here.

ClassOne started with Byron Exarcos 16 years ago in Georgia, when he realized the equipment Semitool had built a decade earlier was no longer state-of-the-art but still had value. He started as a broker for the machines, but realized there was more opportunity in refurbishment.

While Semitool continued to push its technology to the cutting edge, it stopped making certain models, Witt said. There is still a demand for those models, which ClassOne hopes to fill. Not only are the models brought up to current code, but they come with a warranty from ClassOne to back up the work.

After refurbishment efforts proved fruitful, ClassOne started building its own machines, Witt said. The Georgia company decided to open a Kalispell location because Applied Materials was here, he said.

“The Flathead Valley is a center of excellence in electrochemistry,” Witt said. “We seem to be in the right place at the right time.”

The first three years in the Montana location were tough, Witt said, but once they found their ClassOne products were accepted in the marketplace, business has grown 50 to 100 percent every year.

“The refurbishments are popular, and we’ve had hyper-growth in new products,” Witt said.
This has led to a bit of a packed-sardine situation at the ClassOne facility in Evergreen, and Witt said the company is working on adding another 10,000 square feet to spread out operations and add a new clean room for research and development.

There are also about a dozen open jobs at any one time, Witt said.

“We have a lot of manufacturing jobs and we pay better than the average bear,” he said.

The production floor at ClassOne bustles with activity, with refurbishments on one side of the aisle and new construction on the other. The machines, which sell for $500,000 to $2 million, are packed up and shipped directly from the building.

The crews here build to extreme exactness, Witt said, using microns for measurement. A micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter; for example, a healthy human hair is usually about 80 microns thick. Witt said the machines there are putting film layers just two microns thick on wafers.

Machines in the building were headed all over the world. Each has about a six-month lead time, and Witt said the company’s work backlog is at an all-time high.

“Every quarter has been a new record,” he said.

And with new inroads into the Asian markets, Witt said ClassOne is ready to take off. They have distributors in China and Taiwan, but recently, camera and optics giant Canon signed on as a sales partner for ClassOne’s efforts in Japan. Essentially, ClassOne is grafting on a Japanese sales force, which they otherwise might not have the resources for at the moment.

“We’re lucky they took us; it’s a real vote of confidence,” Witt said.

Witt said ClassOne has great potential in its market, and currently is only limited by how quickly and well it can build its products.

“We need more folks in here to build,” Witt said.

For more information on ClassOne Technology and Equipment, visit www.classone.com.

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