On June 21, 1972, IBM had just invented the floppy disk, developed a 5,000-word speech recognition system… and inaugurated a 200-person factory in Bromont. Half a century later, IBM’s oldest facility in the world is still at the forefront, which will house Canada’s first quantum computer in 2023. IBM opened its doors – a little – to the media for the occasion.
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IBM Bromont has about 1,000 employees who produce 100,000 microelectric modules every week. But you won’t find them in the devices at home: It’s been almost two decades since the computer giant and predecessor IBM, which was officially founded in 1911, left the consumer market. The parts manufactured in Bromont are intended for the servers of the company and its customers, especially the largest financial institutions.
The 850,000 square foot facilities are like this “new” IBM, very discreet on the outside and walls painted beige on the inside. “It’s about being able to reconfigure everything according to the new missions and it’s a question of efficiency,” explains Frédéric Tracey, Director of Human Resources.
No talk of giving visitors access to the most confidential labs, which can only be viewed through barred windows. First because of questions of business secrets, then not to contaminate the valuable modules. “One squirt can be enough to damage the part,” says Tracey.
Like IBM, the factory changed its vocation during its half-century and was entitled to two major expansions in particular. The first IBM Selectric typewriters and 1981 computer parts were built there from 1972. More than 10 million are invested in product development every year, and a hundred patents have been granted there since 2011. There is no rest in this area: between 20 and 30% of the modules built there are replaced by new models every year. “These are high-tech products with a short lifespan,” explains Stéphane Tremblay, operations manager. We have to create 200 or 300 jobs every year. If we stopped innovating, we wouldn’t produce anything in less than five years. »
In the testing department, where the media has finally been able to enter, we meet a 37-year-old operator, Manon Brodeur, from Waterloo. She has changed jobs many times since she was hired, obviously to her great delight. “Work lives here. The advantage at IBM is that there are many industries, there are always opportunities, you can learn. »
In its 111-year history, IBM has not been entirely successful, starting with its retreat from the personal computer market it dominated in the early 1980s: the Bromont plant had nearly three times as many workers, up to 2,800 in 2008, before there were a series of cuts in the 2010s.
And yet, with 2021 sales of $57.4 billion and net income up $5.7 billion, IBM clearly hasn’t suffered the fate of dominant companies like BlackBerry and Nokia that have collapsed. For Claude Guay, who served as CEO of IBM Canada from 2020-2022 and now holds the position of Global Managing Partner, Enterprises, Ecosystem and Acquisitions, this resilience comes from two foundations: investment and fundamental research. “There are several Nobel laureates working for IBM. The company has always looked for what has greater added value. We made a lot of bets: instead of settling for simple modifications, we have executives who bet on anything. »
IBM is now getting into other promising sectors, including cloud computing and artificial intelligence. This last area in particular will benefit from the technological revolution of the coming decades: quantum computers millions of times faster than today’s computers. Along with Google and Microsoft, IBM is one of the leading providers in this field. While the commercialization of quantum computers is not expected for several years, IBM has even foreseen that it is now protecting its microprocessors from the impressive decryption capabilities of these machines. “Our new platform, the z16, includes quantum-safe encryption,” assures Claude Guay.
By 2023, the Bromont facilities will house IBM’s fourth quantum computer outside the United States and first in Canada. Quantum System One, estimated at 130.7 million to build, including 68 million from Quebec, will be the jewel of the Bromont Innovation Zone announced in February.