Of all the times that a global company needed to pull together, it was this year, particularly when it provides a product relied upon around the world to support health and industry services, including vital research and development.
VAT Group did pull together, and encouraged by its company value, ‘One VAT’, has come through the COVID-19 crisis with exceptional success. Recognised throughout the world as the leading developer, manufacturer and supplier of high-end vacuum valves, VAT Group boasts a rich history spanning more than 55 years.
The company specialises in manufacturing welded bellows for vacuum and non-vacuum applications in the semiconductor industry, the automotive industry and in medical technology, research and development.
While it always boasted an impressive lead in the US and European markets, it launched production in Malaysia in 2012 to establish a comprehensive and vital Asian hub.
The search for an intensive Asian operational centre covered most of the region, with the ultimate decision influenced by Malaysia’s availability of highly skilled and motivated people, strong local suppliers capable of a fast turnover for mechanical parts and electronic components, an efficient logistics infrastructure, and lower costs.
Maintaining and expanding research and development in Malaysia is a long-term commitment, with around US$43 million spent on research and development last year. It took five years for the Malaysian facility to become fully operational and, in September last year, with the opening of its Phase 2 centre, the campus was expanded from 6,000 square metres to 24,000 square metres.
The development is forecast to increase VAT’s global production capacity by 30% and, boosted additionally by the growth of digitalisation, the company envisages the number of employees in Malaysia will nearly double by the end of 2023.
Headquartered in Haag, Switzerland, with production facilities also based in Romania and Taiwan, the company employs about 2,000 people globally. Customer services and engineering support is also offered in 11 countries, with representatives available in 18 more.
VAT vacuum valves are high-performance, mission-critical stainless steel and aluminium components that allow the creation of ultra-pure processing environments needed to manufacture high-end semiconductors, flat panel digital displays, portable devices and solar panels.
They are also used in a variety of other high-precision industrial processes such as the manufacture of medical equipment and advanced scientific research, particularly in devices such as particle accelerators.
VAT provides a wide range of services to its customers through its global service teams, based in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Germany and Switzerland.
These services include training, equipment repair and overhaul, valve upgrade including retrofits, replacement of VAT-authentic gates for transfer valves and provision of VAT-genuine spares and consumables.
Catering to customers’ specific requirements, the teams provide these services either onsite or offsite at its global service centres. Innovation and engineering excellence have been the driving force behind VAT’s development over the past five decades, and with sophisticated cutting-edge manufacturing sites spanning two continents, there’s no question VAT stands alone against its competitors.
Equipped with its exceptional manufacturing capabilities, vast resources and phenomenally strong product design, the company enjoys a close collaboration with its key customers, providing accurate business continuity plans to meet their stringent demands.
VAT relied heavily on its ingrained work culture to work successfully around the restrictions introduced to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. In Malaysia, where 340 people work at the facility in Penang, including 10 comprising its leadership team, VAT moved quickly and shut production down when the government implemented its first Movement Control Order in mid-March.
As virus transmission eased and the country entered a recovery phase, industries were allowed to resume gradually in stages of 30%, 50% and 100%. VAT resumed full production in early May with employees returning on rotating schedules to continue meeting ambitious orders and clearing backlogs.
The majority had returned by the first week of July, with flexibility to work from home when required. It’s testament to the company’s strong values that remarkably no-one lost their job. In fact, going one better, those scheduled for bonuses, increments and promotions this year were all rewarded as originally planned.
Perhaps even more extraordinary is that against all odds, operating under pandemic restrictions, a rotating workforce and facing a stronger than expected demand across the semiconductor industry, Malaysia’s VAT team achieved its highest ever quarterly output in June 2020, exceeding the forecast calculated back in April.
Based on preliminary figures, VAT’s order intake in the second quarter of 2020 amounted to more than US$190 million, up 32% from the same quarter of the previous year.
Net sales in the quarter were in excess of US$186 million, an increase of 28% compared with the same period a year ago and ahead of the most recent guidance of US$161–$172 million forecast in the first quarter of 2020 trading update on 16 April.
To bolster momentum and ensure successful results continue to be recorded while maintaining strict protocols to safeguard the health and safety of its employees, VAT is intensifying its communication and education to assist employees to adjust to a new working normal.
As the global leading supplier of vacuum valves, the majority customised to meet individual needs, VAT offers more than 1,000 options to cover all relevant ranges of vacuum pressure.
The vast majority of products – in fact, 99% – is exported, with nearly half of that, or 45%, catering to the Asian region. VAT was founded in 1965 by Austrian entrepreneur and mechanical engineer Siegfried Schertler, originally focusing on vacuum valves for scientific research.
The company was initially based in the Swiss town of Flawil before moving to Haag in the municipality of Sennwald in the Rhine valley. Gradually, its product portfolio diversified to include thin film, and by 1983, VAT was manufacturing edge-welded bellows used as flexible sealing elements.
Just five years later, the company entered the semiconductor sector with its proprietary VATSEAL gate valve. As its product scope broadened, VAT expanded its business beyond its traditional European markets and established manufacturing and service operations in the US and Asia.
In 2008, VAT launched manufacturing facilities in Romania, with Taiwan opening a year later and, in April 2016, the company went public. It was the ongoing high demand in Asia which led VAT to build its facility in Malaysia in 2012.
Working closely with customers on prototypes or developing new products, all functions and specifications are tested on site in cutting-edge laboratories. Its Swiss headquarters has provided consistent strong support, and continues to do so since VAT began building its Penang facility in the Batu Kawan Industrial Estate.
Experts in various sectors were flown to the region to offer mentoring and skill sets to local employees, as well as opportunities to build competence and relationships with the international team in Switzerland.
The company produces its vacuum valves according to the ‘zero-defect’ principle, which depends on process safety, personal responsibility for quality and close cooperation along the value-added chain. Armed with this single-minded focus on quality, reliability and innovation, the business is structured into three segments – valves, global service and industry.
As the only valve manufacturer with its own particle measurement laboratory located in San Jose, California, VAT is developing extraordinary, cutting-edge technology. The new 5G network has created significant demand in leading-edge silicon chips, calling for faster processors, more OLED screens, and increasing memory using less energy.
This has resulted in many VAT customers requiring enormous improvements in chip performance per watt. With focus keenly centred on this future, the company is pioneering the supply of digitised smart valve products in the semiconductor fabrication plants to reduce downtime and increase yield by driving the development of new, fast mechatronic valves and motion components that integrate mechanical, electronic and computing functionality.
These manufacturing operations are often in molecular scale where the tiniest contaminant can compromise the fabrication process. Last year, future high-end products of 10 nanometres and smaller, with a particle emission below 0.001 nanoparticles per cycle, were developed with incredible success.
The company’s exceptional after-sales service includes specially trained staff working around the world able to provide spare parts and valve servicing around the clock.
Its comprehensive support includes advice on valve specifications, local workshops to develop a tailor-made valve solution, local design work for special, customer-specific solutions, and design evaluation including structural mechanics and thermal simulation of pumping-out procedures.
Meanwhile, it’s the company’s richly anchored culture based on VAT’s values of ‘One VAT’, reliability and trust, pragmatism and courage that has united everyone scattered throughout the world to operate as one global team.
Realising people are VAT’s greatest assets, the company keenly practises leadership empowerment, with each decision carefully discussed and analysed by the leadership team.
Employed in a clean and positive working environment and able to take advantage of the investment made in education and customised training, tremendous growth opportunities are consistently provided.
The company’s solid reputation for its competence centre, strengthening technical skills and sharing knowledge attracts good talent to the business, which also offers apprenticeships to become a general mechanic, production mechanic or technical designer.
However, career development is not restricted to apprenticeships. From its factories to its offices, VAT offers career and personal development opportunities to all levels through personalised training and development programs.
These courses incorporate open and transparent communication with heavy investment in extensive EHS training to promote health and safety at work. The company is guided by its three principal values: passion, precision and purity.
It focuses on the passion to innovate, to create products of unparalleled precision that allow customers to create the purest vacuum environments needed to manufacture the world’s most advanced products.
Meanwhile, VAT’s deeply established Swiss heritage unites the company globally to stimulate the ethos of ‘One VAT’ working towards common goals, which include opening multiple doors for a smarter future.
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