Operating within the ultra-precise, highly technical bounds of the semiconductor and subsystems solutions manufacturing realm is where Ultra Clean Technology’s (UCT) Vice President Thomas Joseph thrives.
“I’m at my best when things are dynamic and challenging,” he says. “Challenges energise me because in every challenge, I see opportunity.” He credits this remarkable mindset to his mother. After losing his father at a young age, his mother became his rock. “She makes me stronger,” Thomas says.
“She never directly told me what to do. Instead, she inspired me through proverbs and parables, allowing me to form my own opinions. It helped shape my character, especially when it comes to difficult situations.”
When 2020 came, bringing COVID-19 with it, it was lucky that Thomas was the one steering the UCT ship. His role is responsible for overseeing the company’s product manufacturing operations in Asia, including its Singapore, Philippines and Shanghai locations.
“In this unknown situation, I never panicked,” Thomas says. “I talked to my team, helping them feel comfortable. I let them know that together, we could get through it.” As part of the global supply chain for the semiconductor industry, UCT was deemed essential by the Singapore government.
While the team had to stagger shifts and maintain safe distances, production didn’t need to stop. “We never had to shut down the operation, not even for a day or an hour, which was quite good,” Thomas says.
With his optimistic outlook, he used this unprecedented event to look for opportunity. And with patience, the silver lining of the pandemic presented itself. “A few months back, we got acknowledgement from our customers that, as a company, UCT managed the crisis very well,” Thomas remembers.
“We even managed to increase our volumes when our competitors in the region weren’t able to deliver according to customers’ expectations. We were able to turn their missteps into opportunities.”
UCT is a global leader in the design, engineering and manufacturing of production tools, modules and subsystems in the semiconductor and display capital equipment industries.
The US-based company provides its customers with specialised engineering and manufacturing solutions for highly complex, highly configurable and limited-volume applications.
And its expansive global footprint means it can drive down total manufacturing costs and reduce design-to-delivery cycle times, all while maintaining high-quality standards for its customers.
This all combines to make UCT a stand-out in the industry. “Because we’re in a highly precise, technologyoriented realm supporting low-volume, highly configurable manufacturing, there aren’t many active players, and there aren’t many new players coming in,” Thomas says.
“Being in this niche, managing dynamics, growing the business – to me, it’s a huge differentiator and a huge success.” Thomas came on board with UCT in 2013 after leaving Flextronics in Shanghai as its Director of Operations.
In a serendipitous turn of events, he was approached by UCT right as he was considering leaving the country to gain exposure to multicultural global cities like Singapore. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“When UCT approached me, I knew it was for a smaller role. But it was also a greenfield,” he recalls. “There was a lot of opportunity for me to come in and develop the business.”
And develop it is what he did. Under Thomas’s leadership, UCT Asia has blossomed. “When I came on, the Singapore team was only 80 people. Today, there are 500,” he beams.
“Also, when I joined, the Asia operation only represented roughly 25% of the company’s total revenue. Today, it’s somewhere around 55%. During my seven years, the company has more than doubled its revenue as well.”
As a result, UCT is devoting more resources to growing the region in efforts to increase its footprint. “Basically, all the growth is coming from Asia as our customers have shifted their manufacturing to the region, especially in Singapore,” Thomas says. “So we are continuing to build and strengthen the team here.
“And since Singapore is our regional headquarters for supply chain and engineering activities as well as operational excellence, everything is being driven out of this office and executed across all of the other product manufacturing sites.”
The newest site is set for Penang, Malaysia, and it will be a game-changer for UCT. “This is going to be our biggest factory under the UCT umbrella,” Thomas reveals. “Construction has already started, and the factory will be ready by mid-2021. “It will create more employment, both directly and indirectly. And it will also bring a lot of new technology into the region.”
Thomas will be responsible for this operation, hiring the resources and taking charge of the planning. “That’s going to keep me busy for another year or three,” he chuckles. One thing Thomas is serious about, though, is maintaining the culture he’s worked tirelessly to build throughout the company’s growth journey.
“Culture drives behaviour, and that behaviour drives our values. Now that we are aligned with our culture and values, the results we desire can come,” he shares. “I consider this one of my greatest achievements as we continue to grow.”
UCT’s key business partnerships are also a vital component of its success. As such, Thomas makes sure they are aligned with the company’s objectives from the very beginning.
“This is not just an overnight business,” he stresses. “We have to develop the technological capabilities and then we need to have the capacity because our business is pretty dynamic. Our production life cycle is anywhere from 10–15 years – unlike the iPhone or other electronic gadgets that are about two to three years – because we support niche equipment.
“The equipment our assemblies support helps to create the integrated circuits, memories and sensors which go into phones, computers and other devices we all use daily. These fabrication facilities have millions of dollars in capital invested, so we need to ensure we remain flexible, with broad capabilities.”
Thanks to today’s highly digitised modern world, the industry is growing rapidly. When Thomas first got involved, he says water fabrication equipment spend was about US$30 billion a year. Now that number has skyrocketed.
“Within the last couple of years, it’s jumped to roughly US$60 billion,” he remarks. “That’s an incredible increase over the past five or so years. And it’s because a lot of people and industries are moving to IoT and ecommerce, creating the demand for devices that can access and transmit data much faster.”
Thomas says the automotive industry has also been a big contributor. “Traditional cars maybe have up to US$1,000 worth of electronic components inside. Now, with the increase in the use of high-tech sensors on our path to self-driving cars, that number has climbed to a staggering US$10,000 or so.”
Likewise, home security factors into the boom. “Between five and 10 years ago, having a video camera or radio sensors installed in a house was a luxury,” he says.
“Whereas today, having a couple of cameras around the backyard or house doesn’t cost that much. People are getting familiar with these electronic applications as they become more affordable. As a result, the demand is continuously increasing.”
This all equates to great things for UCT because, as the industry grows and becomes more dynamic, opportunities also increase, and more opportunities equal more money. However, according to Thomas, that’s all just numbers. And while they’re useful for helping to measure success, they’re not everything.
“Numbers and what’s behind them – profitability, revenue and service-level deliverables – are near-term goals. They are necessary, but they’re not what excites me,” he explains. “It’s the people who excite me. They’re our longterm goals, and they’re responsible for helping us achieve our short-term goals.”
Thomas is extraordinarily proud of his team, crediting them as his favourite reason for going into work each day. “I love the people. It’s like I hand-picked 400 of them, each from different backgrounds, different industries and different cultures, and integrated them into the UCT culture,” he enthuses.
“The people make the difference. Our competitors can offer to buy 10 times the factories we have, and some have. But what they don’t have is our people. While we’re not the only player, we are the largest contract manufacturer in our space, and our people are what makes the biggest difference.”
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