In its publicity materials, SPTS Technologies uses a four-word formula to sum up what it does: “We make electronics possible”. It’s a bold claim, but not an unwarranted one. The Newport-based company provides the equipment used by many of the world’s leading electronics manufacturers to turn silicon wafers into advanced semiconductor devices.
As a result, we come into contact many times each day with technology built using the company’s equipment. For example, a micro-electro-mechanical machine system, a MEMS device, such as the airbag sensor in your car, which senses the change in momentum in a crash, is made of silicon – and there’s around a 75% chance it has been made on SPTS equipment.
According to Paul Rich, Executive Vice President, Product Engineering and Technology at SPTS, “Depending on the exact type of the device, its manufacture may involve as many as 2,000 processes to go from bare silicon to the end product. We build equipment that addresses anything from 50 to 100 of those processes.”
Work this specialised demands a highly trained workforce. He says: “We’re a very geeky company. We need people such as plasma physicists, chemical engineers and mechanical engineers. In fact, around half of our employees are qualified engineers or physicists of some nature, and many of them hold advanced degrees. We’re very active in grooming apprentices and graduates into our workforce – hopefully drawing them into the company when they leave school or finish their degrees – and we hire a lot from within the EU as well.”
The long-standing relationships between SPTS and Welsh universities and their commercial arms provide valuable benefits for both parties. Rich says: “If you were to go into the labs at Swansea University, you would definitely find SPTS equipment there. Their undergraduate and graduate programmes are using our equipment to do experiments, to create pseudo-functional to fully functional prototype devices and explore what’s possible. As a result of that, they get used to using our equipment – and we can use that as a way to attract them to us as they come out of the higher education system.
“We sponsor graduates as well, with the idea that they come to work for us for a certain number of years after they’ve finished their degree. With ongoing collaborative engagements with many of the universities, the graduates get the opportunity to do research in a commercial environment.”
Alongside the company’s collaborations with academia and the other companies in the compound semiconductor cluster, Rich identifies a strong partnership with the Welsh Government as an essential ingredient in past and future success.
He says: “You’ve got a devolved Government that is hungry to support bringing in high-tech businesses, because it’s good for the economy. They take the attitude that we’re open for business, and they want to be part of that success; and they try to knock out bureaucracy in any way they can to make working together easy.
“The ecosystem is already here. We’re all well-established companies: some of us go back 40 years in the semiconductor industry. And together, we’ve helped build a localised capability that exists nowhere else in the world.”