IQE is the leading global supplier of the atomically engineered wafers that are made into advanced semiconductors. As corporate systems manager Chris Meadows explains, it’s a sector that demands a skilled workforce and provides high-value jobs.
Compound semiconductors have been around for a long time, and IQE has been an integral part of the industry for the past three decades: we celebrated our 30th anniversary last year. Government support was one of the factors in our decision to set up in South Wales. Another was our close links to Cardiff University, which was already active in compound semiconductor research.
Back then, compound semiconductor components in domestic appliances included things like the lasers in CD players. Today, they’re in pretty much every mobile phone – not just the communications part, but things like sensor technologies that switch the screen off when it’s close to your ear, or 3D sensing for facial ID.
IQE has around a 60% global market share of these components. Because mobile devices usually have several, we’re almost guaranteed to be in every handset.
We produce the atomically engineered wafers that can then be processed by chip fabrication companies such as Newport Wafer Fab, using equipment made by people like SPTS. They then get packaged by the likes of Microchip in Caldicot.
While we have the core of an industry sector entirely within Wales, our markets are truly global: North America and the Far East are among the major ones. If you have a handset, the chances are that the device and its components have travelled round the world a couple of times to get to you.
As we go forward to higher performance requirements with 5G, then the need for compound semiconductors and IQE’s products will increase with that. A lot of other connected devices – including driverless vehicles with all their sensor technologies, power management and so on – will be dependent on them.
We’ve established a new site at Newport, and between that and our existing Cardiff site, we expect to take on 500 people. We’ve worked very closely with the Welsh Government, which owned the new building – a former LG semiconductor plant. They transferred it over to the Cardiff Capital Region, and now we’re their tenant, with an option to buy the plant over the next 11 years.
Because it’s a global business, we recruit in Wales, across the UK and internationally. We have strong links with Welsh universities, and also with the likes of Bristol and Manchester, as well as institutions in Scotland. We’re working particularly closely with Cardiff and Swansea: just last year, Cardiff University launched two Masters degrees specific to compound semiconductors. They also recently announced that they’d won a bid to create a centre for doctoral training based on compound semiconductors.
It’s important to stress, too, that these are all hi-tech, high-value jobs. A couple of feasibility studies, one by Cardiff University and one by KPMG, established that the average salaries are about two-and-a-half times the average for jobs in manufacturing. Within IQE and across the wider cluster, we have a very attractive proposition for talented people here.