The world’s most advanced and delicately fine-tuned semiconductors would not be possible without the aid of giant steel storage tanks built by a little-known Tokyo company founded in 1927.
Valqua Ltd makes specialized, super clean containers for storing essential chipmaking chemicals and it expects to hit its highest sales ever this fiscal year.
It is by far the world’s largest supplier of such tanks, dwarfing a clutch of smaller competitors in places such as Taiwan, and providing almost every tank used by the world’s biggest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (台積電), Ichiyoshi Research Institute analyst Mitsuhiro Osawa said.
Photo: Yimou Lee, Reuters
Valqua is part of a loose network of Japanese manufacturers that dominate a niche, but indispensable segment of the global chip supply chain. Disco Corp, for instance, is the industry’s go-to supplier of silicon wafer cutters, while JSR Corp provides the high-purity chemicals that Valqua stores at chip plants.
“A molecular-level impurity would make the whole chemical solution in a tank useless, as it would drastically degrade the production yields of cutting-edge chipmaking,” Valqua president Yoshihiro Hombo said in an interview. “We and chemical makers support the complete supply chain by making, transporting and storing these solutions under ultra-clean conditions, and that is not something that can be easily replicated.”
Valqua gets more than half its sales from semiconductor makers and its close-knit relationship with the chip sector helps it stand out among industry peers.
Chipmaking customers are not showing signs of slowing spending even as demand has fallen dramatically from its COVID-19 pandemic highs, Hombo said.
“Sentiment actually remains intact, as top players of the industry tend to accelerate their investment to distance themselves from rivals,” the 66-year-old said.
The various chemicals and acids used in semiconductor fabrication processes have to be free of contaminants. The required purity for the ones used in cleaning wafers is equivalent to taking a trip around the Earth without finding a dust speck wider than a 10th of a human hair.
Those extreme specifications make it a tough business for a small company to enter and an unattractive one for bigger players, Hombo said.
There’s no standardized tank shape or size, so each chip plant’s containers — which usually number in the hundreds per facility — have to be made to order.
These tanks can be as large as 4 meters in diameter and 9 meters in height, and Valqua lines their interiors with fluororesin sheets.
Applying the inflexible, non-adhesive sheets to curved surfaces perfectly requires the hands of skilled workers. Pipes connecting tanks to machinery must also be lined, and the whole tank production process is carried out in a clean environment.
Customers return to Valqua because of that bespoke manufacturing and the difficulty of replacing a tank, which might last for a decade or more.
Valqua might spend to accelerate its growth push as it moves toward its 100th birthday.
“Our balance sheet is healthy right now, and we may eye some acquisitions and expansions,” Hombo said.
One step on that path is a new factory for storage tanks in Japan’s Aichi, which Valqua announced last month. It is the company’s first new plant in Japan since 2008, underscoring the growing value placed on shoring up potential weak points in the chip supply chain.
The move was driven in part by requests from customers wary of geopolitical risks surrounding Taiwan.
“The cost of making tanks is higher in Japan, but some top chipmakers still favor Japan as the best place to source supplies from,” Hombo said.
The nation is rich on good providers of materials and machinery, and is seen as a safe haven for a sector that “has become a big cluster of various geopolitical risks.”
Valqua’s new factory, expected to start operations in January 2025, is to be funded in part by the Japanese government.
EXPANDING: WT Microelectronics Co distributes more than 10,000 products to Asian countries, but hopes that acquiring Future Electronics will expand its global reach Semiconductor component distributor WT Microelectronics Co (文曄) plans to fully acquire Canadian rival Future Electronics Inc in a US$3.8 billion deal, the company said yesterday. If approved by regulators in Taiwan and abroad in the first half of next year, the transaction would be the largest since Micron Technology Inc absorbed DRAM chipmaker Inotera Memories Inc (華亞科技) for NT$132.6 billion in 2016. WT Microelectronics expects the deal to expand its reach to the US and European markets while broadening its product offerings and customer coverage, as both companies complement each other in terms of customer bases, product portfolios and geographical deployments, it
soft landing: The US’ rate-setting FOMC finds itself in a difficult situation as it seeks to address inflation through interest rate hikes while avoiding a recession The US Federal Reserve is widely expected to hold interest rates steady on Wednesday after a summer of mixed economic data, while leaving the door open to another hike if needed. The Fed has raised interest rates 11 times over the past 18 months, lifting its key lending rate to a level not seen for 22 years as it tackles inflation still stubbornly above its long-term target of 2 percent. Analysts and traders broadly expect the US central bank to hold rates steady on Wednesday in order to give policymakers more time to assess the health of the world’s largest economy. “We think
AI TREND: TSMC has been rapidly expanding capacity to meet a spike in demand for advanced packaging services, but still expects supplies to be tight for 18 months Arizona is in talks with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC, 台積電) about advanced chip packaging, state Governor Katie Hobbs said yesterday, which is crucial for the manufacturing of artificial intelligence (AI) chips. TSMC, which is building a US$40 billion chip factory in the US state, has not announced plans to build facilities for advanced chip packaging in the US. Advanced packaging processes stitch multiple chips together into a single device, lowering the added cost of more powerful computing. “Part of our efforts at building the semiconductor ecosystem is focusing on advanced packaging, so we have several things in the works around that
At a sprawling South Korean arms factory on Friday, a high-tech production line of robots and super-skilled workers were rapidly churning out weapons that could, eventually, play a role in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion last year, the Hanwha Aerospace factory in the southern city of Changwon has expanded production capacity three times, workers told reporters, as South Korea ramps up arms exports while traditional behemoths like the US struggle with production shortages. Longstanding domestic policy bars Seoul from selling weapons into active conflicts, but even so it signed deals worth US$17.3 billion last year, including a US$12.7 billion agreement with NATO