Therm-x of Hayward, California develops, engineers, and manufactures advanced temperature and process control systems, primarily for clients in technological industries. The award-winning, rapidly-expanding company collaborates with customers to produce its products, and the firm’s wares are particularly popular with computer chip makers and semiconductor equipment companies – since temperature control is a vital part of the semiconductor production process.
“We develop products with [original equipment manufacturers – semiconductor equipment manufacturers for the most part. It’s a co-development process,” states Phil Quinton, vice president of business development. “The three different areas of products we focus on are heaters, integrated systems, and sensors. It’s a pretty even distribution. Integrated systems is growing faster than the other two because we’re getting into a lot larger assemblies.”
Therm-x operates as a vertically-integrated manufacturer, handling as many services in-house as possible, and almost all of the company’s products are custom-built. “We have CNC (computer numerical controlled) machining; we have sheet metal; we have electro-mechanical assembly. We have metal joining, which is welding and vacuum brazing; we have testing; we have an in-house test and calibration lab,” states Quinton.
Therm-x’s product line includes controllers, heaters, data loggers and recorders, power switching devices, sensors, wireless instruments, transducers, and transmitters. The company’s thermesthesiometer probe, used to determine temperatures, is the kind of product at which Therm-x excels.
“It’s a probe and control system that simulates the human touch. The probe is heated to body temperature so that it’s operating under conditions [that resemble] your finger. It has a sensor that’s approximately the depth of the nerve that measures temperature. This thing makes contact with a surface and logs the readings of the temperature based on heat transfer characteristics similar to the human body. So you can come up with data to see if a product is safe for human touch,” explains Quinton.
In addition to chip makers and semiconductor equipment firms, Therm-x works with clients in the defense, aerospace, alternative energy, medical, biotechnology, food and beverage, and petrochemical sectors.
“Under semiconductor and electronics, we deal with solar applications, but it still falls under that category. The majority of what we do is related to nanotechnology – people that are producing thin films for various nanotechnology applications,” states Quinton.
“We’re looking to expand. We’d like to diversify. We’re interested in the aerospace business. We’re AS9100-certified for ISO, which is the aerospace standard, and we have a lot of vertically-integrated manufacturing capabilities and engineering design capabilities to support product development for aerospace and defense. We’ve mostly worked with semiconductor equipment manufacturers because that’s [a dominant] technology in the Silicon Valley where we’re at,” he adds.
Therm-x has several other industry certifications, including UL 508A (Underwriters Laboratories). The company conducts internal audits, performs detailed inspections, and emphasizes product and material traceability to maintain consistent high quality. If a product is returned or fails to perform as expected, Therm-x performs a failure mode analysis “to resolve any issues with design or manufacturing, to avoid future problems,” says Quinton.
The company operates out of two buildings in Hayward, a 50,000-square-foot fabrication facility and a 70,000-square-foot facility devoted to assembly, testing, purchasing, and engineering.
The company has a sister firm called Therm-x SVT (System Vietnam Technology) in Vietnam. Established in June 2007, Therm-x SVT typically handles higher-volume, lower-cost work.
Therm-x SVT “supports our products in California. They have a lot of CNC equipment for machining the components that go into our assemblies. A lot of the components are built in Vietnam and sent over here to go into the assemblies that get tested and shipped from here. They also do a lot of the assembly work for wire harness assemblies and temperature sensors,” states Quinton.
Therm-x’s broad range of services and its current market reach are in stark contrast to the firm’s early days. Therm-x was founded in 1983 as “more of a distribution company,” says Quinton. “For the most part, they were just distributing other people’s products, such as temperature sensors and heaters and getting involved in applications to integrate those products.”
Things began to change in 1994 when new management came on board. The company broadened its mandate and got more involved in making products to take advantage of the region’s booming semiconductor sector.
The new management “brought in some CNC equipment and welders and started to manufacture heater plates and vacuum feedthrough temperature sensors. Then we got a UL 508 license and started doing control boxes and power distribution boxes. Then we bought a 50,000-square-foot building and the manufacturing company that was in it. Along with that came sheet metal and more CNC mills and lathes. We didn’t have sheet metal in-house until we moved [into the new building]. Then we started adding other things like vacuum brazing and welding,” recounts Quinton.
At present, Therm-x has 275 employees in Hayward and roughly 140 in Vietnam. Last year, those totals came to approximately 209 in Hayward and 100 in Vietnam.
Asked what is driving this impressive increase in staff, Quinton says, “ was a banner year for semiconductor equipment growth.”
“We gained a lot of market share with our biggest customers [in 2017],” he adds. “They grew about twenty percent, and we added about twenty percent market share. So we’ve been seeing an average of thirty percent growth over the last four years.”
The company anticipates further expansion, albeit at a slightly slower pace. “It looks like next year is going to be flat for the industry, but we’re grabbing market share, so we expect to grow about fifteen to twenty percent. It might slow down for a while, but then it’s expected to go back to where it was,” notes Quinton.
To accommodate the massive jump in personnel, Therm-x looks for certain qualities in potential employees. “I would say that, at the assembly level, we’re looking for people that are very detail-oriented. They work with small jeweler’s torches to do silver brazing and electrical assembly. It’s also important for planners and purchasing people to be detailed because we’re shipping $5 million to $6 million a month worth of product, and it’s important to plan for inbound material to arrive at the right time. For engineering, it’s more about creative talent. We want people who are thinking outside the box and adopting the latest technology,” states Quinton.
The company also wants to keep those people safe. “We have a safety officer and a full training matrix. Safety is a number one priority. We send out a message every day on email to make employees aware of potential hazards. We have a budget for steel-toed shoes that employees are required to wear in manufacturing areas. Safety glasses are also required in the manufacturing areas,” notes Quinton.
Therm-x has been recognized for its innovation and quality work. Earlier this year, the firm won an innovation award from the East Bay Economic Development Alliance. The win was in the category of advanced manufacturing. “It was a big deal for us. Our whole team went out to the Fox Theater in Oakland. There were five hundred people in attendance, including several mayors,” recalls Quinton.
The company continues to innovate and is currently developing a new fiber-optic sensor for measuring temperature and pressure. The firm also uses 3D printers for some prototype development and fixture applications. Therm-x is thinking about expanding its 3D printing capabilities, depending on how 3D printing technology develops over the next few years.
The company has traditionally relied heavily on its reputation for repeat and new business.
“We’ve been doing this for twenty years. We’ve been working with the same customers, and we’re pretty known in the industry. It’s a pretty tight-knit, small world. We go to the SEMICON show every year. We’ve been in attendance every year for the last twenty years. We don’t have a booth, but we go and walk around and meet everybody. We have meetings and look for new technologies,” states Quinton. SEMICON is a trade show for companies within the microelectronics world.
Over the next five years, “I think we want to expand our manufacturing capabilities. We’re looking at a couple of options. We might get into different types of metal joining, possibly aluminum brazing because we’re only vacuum brazing stainless steel. We may get into some kind of plastic extrusion or injection molding,” says Quinton.