Semiconductor equipment spending is mounting a strong recovery on the strength of explosive chip demand for work-at-home and study-at-home electronics fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the growth, the 2017-2018 memory boon that triggered a critical subsystems shortage is still fresh on the minds of equipment suppliers as they worry whether critical subsystem providers can keep pace with the rebounding chip industry while managing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hideyuki Koishi, president of HORIBA STEC, Co., Ltd., a leading supplier of mass flow controllers (MFCs), one subsystem critical to semiconductor production, recently spoke with SEMI about the company’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic’s impact on the global supply chain and the company’s ability to meet the demand for MFCs.
SEMI: What COVID-19 countermeasures has HORIBA STEC taken?
Koishi: To ensure employee safety and security while maintaining a stable supply of products to our customers, we started to deploy company-wide countermeasures when the Japan government declared a nationwide state of emergency to curb COVID-19 infections on April 16.
HORIBA STEC and the entire HORIBA group formed a global COVID-19 task force and centralized all local outbreak decision-making to drive a rapid and effective global response. We quickly implemented work-at-home practices for our office staff and provided a safe environment for our factory workers, who are essential to maintaining product supplies, by establishing social distancing protocols and restricting site visits to essential workers. We also distributed face masks to all employees and placed disinfectant dispensers near the door of every room so employees could wash their hands before entering.
To help on-site employees follow our social distancing guidelines, we reduced seating at cafeterias and converted meeting rooms to offices to give employees ample work space. We also established invisible walls in manufacturing facilities with multiple collocated divisions to restrict workers to their assigned areas, a containment measure that helps with social distancing while minimizing the risk of an entire factory shutdown if a worker contracts the virus.
SEMI: Have you experienced supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreak?
Koishi: Even though our supply chain extends overseas and includes China, fortunately we have not experienced any significant disruptions thanks to the broad geographic distribution of our supply chain. In addition, because many of our critical components are sourced in Japan, pandemic-related impacts to our business have been limited.
Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, we organized a community called Rakuraku-kai with our suppliers in Japan to build and maintain close relationships. Although the community name suggests it is exclusive to Kyoto-based suppliers, its reach is a nationwide. After the declaration of state of emergency in June, the supplier community gathered for an ad hoc meeting to exchange information and share perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis.
SEMI: Did you have any pandemic protocols in place before the COVID-19 outbreak?
Koishi: In 2014, HORIBA group launched Stained Glass, a project designed to increase workforce diversity at HORIBA group companies through initiatives such as placing more women in decision-making roles and encouraging working at home to help employees better balance job demands with their family lives. As part of Good Place, the project’s program to increase the work-at-home rate, HORIBA group deployed a web-based meeting system and encouraged workers to transition from physical to online meetings. Good Place has helped our IT team and workers smoothly implement our work-at-home practices.
Working at home is a beneficial practice regardless of its effectiveness in curbing infections. Employees can reduce commute time, increasing their quality. And it’s much easier and more affordable for international participants to join meetings since they’re spared the time and cost of travel.
This year HORIBA group also moved its three-day bi-annual global meeting online to make them safer and more economical. The meeting is attended by about 100 leaders of group companies and business units.
SEMI: Do you have any concerns about meeting demand for mass flow controllers?
Koishi: We doubled the capacity of our main mass flow controller factory in Kumamoto prefecture in 2018 and with more floor space available for further expansion, we see no major barriers to meeting the growing demand from international customers in 2021 and beyond. Nonetheless, we must sustain the best possible COVID-19 countermeasures to maintain production while ensuring the safety of our employees.
SEMI: Are you make any social contributions to combat the virus?
Koishi: Semiconductors are not only indispensable for the electronics behind remote work, education and healthcare but they also play a critical role in developing COVID-19 therapies and vaccines. Thus, at HORIBA STEC, we believe our most important contribution is to maintain steady a supply of our mass flow controllers and other key semiconductor equipment components.
HORIBA group also participates in two important pandemic initiatives. The Open COVID-19 Declaration program calls on intellectual property owners to make their patent rights, utility model rights, design rights and copyrights freely available in the fight against COVID-19. The program’s sole purpose is to stop the spread of COVID-19. HORIBA is among the 20 founders1 of this initiative.
In June, HORIBA joined a push by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) to develop a simple and rapid COVID-19 antibody test chip system. We’re contributing our expertise in immunoassay analysis and clinical laboratory equipment to help develop the system.
SEMI: What have you learned from the COVID-19 outbreak?
Koishi: The COVID-19 crisis has posed unprecedented challenges. Everyone hopes to return to normal soon but in reality things will never be exactly the same as before the crisis.
Japan might have lagged other countries in its use of IT to improve business efficiency, but as we deal with the new coronavirus, both companies and their employees have been tirelessly considering reforms to the way we work through digitalization. I believe it will be difficult for companies to survive in the new normal unless they can incorporate these types of changes into their operations.
On the other hand, I've also been reminded of the importance of traditional, analog communication. While we conducted all of our hiring interviews online this year, face-to-face meetings are a much richer experience that gives the prospective employee and the hiring company a much better sense of each other.
In addition, as a company we need to continue to improve our ability to supply products so we can overcome challenges like the pandemic. COVID-19 has taught us our change needs to be more robust. We also need to evolve our business continuity plan to extend well beyond countermeasures to natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes. What matters most is that we apply the lessons of COVID-19 to make our business more resilient.
 Ajinomoto Co., Inc., Canon Inc., Chanel G.K., GenoConcierge Kyoto, Inc., Honda Motor Co., Ltd., Horiba, Ltd., Konica Minolta Inc., Kyoto University, LSI Medience Corporation, Mitsui Knoledge Industry Co., Ltd., NEC Solution Innovators, Ltd., Nikon Corporation, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Rohm Co., Ltd., SRL, Inc., Shimadzu Corporation, Teijin Limited., Toyota Motor Corporation, Tsubakimoto Chain Co., and Yahoo Japan Corporation.
Yoichiro Ando is a marketing staff member at SEMI Japan.