How east Germany’s Dresden gave birth to ‘Silicon Saxony’

When US computer processor maker AMD was building a factory in the eastern German city Dresden in the late 1990s, it sent around 200 local engineers for training to its site in Texas. But today the city is an engineering hub in itself.

How east Germany's Dresden gave birth to 'Silicon Saxony'
A old Robotron typing machine at the Documentation Centre for Everyday Culture in Eisenhüttenstadt in Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

“Not even two days in, they could almost explain the innards of a chip better than the engineers there,” recalls Karin Raths, a 20-year veteran at the plant — now owned by US-based chipmaker Globalfoundries

“They were in unbelievably good shape thanks to those years in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the scarcity economy, the famous reverse engineering” of Western technology under the pre-1989 regime, she adds.

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While the end of the GDR brought de-industrialisation and unemployment as state-owned enterprises were broken up and sold off, Dresden reveals one of the communist state's hidden strengths.

Almost 70,000 people worked at the city's microchip maker Robotron at its height, just before the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago.

Globalfoundries' office in Dresden. Photo: DPA

Much of the eastern bloc's semiconductor industry was based on peeling apart and copying western products — “reverse engineering” — as comparable facilities and machines for research and manufacturing were rare beyond the Iron Curtain.

Cold War technology embargoes meant some western equipment could only be
acquired through slow, expensive and underhand means.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1980s, GDR researchers developed a then-world-class one-megabit memory chip ahead of western rival Siemens.

While it could store an impressive 60 pages of text, it would never enter mass production.

Vital know-how

“Even if the GDR semiconductor industry wasn't competitive on the global stage, the know-how was here in Dresden,” says Robert Franke, head of the city's business development office.

“It was in people's heads, and that was something that could be built on.”

After reunification in 1990, Saxony's first state government quickly recognized microelectronics' potential and backed it with subsidies and a streamlined bureaucracy still praised by business leaders today.

Drawn by the well-trained human resources and the low cost of investments in the region, Western companies moved in, joining some former Robotron engineers who founded their own high-tech companies.

These days, the work in massive, boxy factories among the broad fields and wooded hills around the Saxony capital Dresden might be recognisable to a time

Almost the same number of people as employed by Robotron — around 65,000 — work in the state's high-tech industry, helping generate far greater prosperity than before 1989.

At over 31,000 euros per head, output in Saxony tops the five eastern German states outside Berlin.

Sought-after staff

Huge factories belonging to Globalfoundries and former Siemens subsidiary Infineon churn out chips that can end up in cars, consumer products like
smartphones or more specialised applications like passports or power conversion devices.

At the start of the production lines enter round, pizza-sized silicon “wafers”.

In sterile rooms, dozens of machines lay down layer upon layer of circuitry in hundreds of light and chemical processes, watched over remotely by engineers.

The technicians who keep the units turning 24 hours a day must hide skin and hair under spotless white coveralls as they pass through airlock-like entrances into the clean areas.

Such workers are “a fiercely fought-over resource here in Saxony, a resource that's extremely important to us,” Globalfoundries factory chief Thomas Morgenstern says.

Staff flow constantly between the roughly 2,000 high-tech companies in the
Dresden area — from the international giants to tiny outfits with just a few

Entrance to the Robotron Museum in Dresden. Photo: DPA

Both big companies recruit dozens of trainees each year, while the renowned
Technical University and research institutes educate engineers.

But with an eye on Germany's fast-ageing population, Raik Brettschneider, who heads Infineon's Dresden operation, says staff shortage “worries are definitely there, and we have a lot to do”.

Between far-right and future

With his neat suit, tieless collar, squared-off glasses and cropped hair, Brettschneider could be a typical German manager, if it weren't for the fact he was born in the east in 1978.

Ossis” in top jobs are still rare in businesses across reunified Germany.

The Saxony native is confident about the economic opportunities ahead, but gloomy about a surge in support for the far-right AfD party across the former GDR.

READ ALSO: Germany's far-right AfD hopes for first state-election wins

“We're absolutely undermining ourselves” with such votes, Brettschneider

“We need the best minds from all over the world. We don't even know if someone turns us down or doesn't even apply” over fear of the anti-immigrant party, he adds.

But city official Franke — who also grew up locally — says the city is doing a lot to increase its attractiveness across Germany, including pumping cash into schools and kindergartens to attract young families.

An international flair is also visible in the trendy Neustadt district, where students working at laptops crowd cafes and English can often be heard on the streets.

Franke relates that when he goes abroad, especially to Asia, “I get asked, how have you managed to develop Dresden so positively?”

The city's story is particularly resonant among those gazing at another Cold War divide that remains unhealed.

“The Koreans ask about the reunification,” Franke says, adding that “one day, the northern part will have to be integrated”.

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German police arrest fugitive twin over Dresden museum heist

German police said Tuesday they have arrested one of two fugitive twin brothers from the so-called Remmo clan wanted over their suspected role in snatching priceless jewels from a museum in the city of Dresden.

German police arrest fugitive twin over Dresden museum heist
Archive photo from April 2019 shows the Jewellery Room of the Green Vault. Photo: DPA

The 21-year-old suspect was detained in Berlin on Monday evening over what local media have dubbed one of the biggest museum heists in modern history, a spokesman for the police in the eastern city of Dresden said.

The twins had eluded German authorities when they carried out raids last month and arrested three members of the Remmo clan, a family of Arab origin notorious for its ties to organised crime.

Police then named them as 21-year-old Abdul Majed Remmo and Mohammed Remmo.

All five suspects are accused of “serious gang robbery and two counts of arson,” Dresden prosecutors said.

Police did not immediately name the arrested twin. His brother remains on the run.

The robbers launched their brazen raid lasting eight minutes on the Green Vault museum in Dresden's Royal Palace on November 25th, 2019.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about the Dresden museum heist

Having caused a partial power cut and broken in through a window, they snatched priceless 18th-century jewellery and other valuables from the collection of the Saxon ruler August the Strong.

Items stolen included a sword whose hilt is encrusted with nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, and a shoulderpiece which contains the famous 49-carat Dresden white diamond, Dresden's Royal Palace said.

The Remmos were previously implicated in another stunning museum robbery in the heart of Berlin in which a 100-kilogramme gold coin was stolen.

Investigators last year targeted the family with the seizure of 77 properties worth a total of €9.3 million, charging that they were purchased with the proceeds of various crimes, including a 2014 bank robbery.

READ ALSO: €1 million gold coin stolen from iconic Berlin museum