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Fast-growing ams investing $200M in Singapore expansion

20 Sep 2017

Clean room for micro-optic sensors will sit alongside new VCSEL development and production line.

The Austria-based sensor firm ams is set to ramp production at its existing site in Singapore, thanks to a $200 million investment over the next three years.

ams says that the move will see create a fully automated clean room for micro-optic sensors, alongside new R&D and manufacturing lines for vertical cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL) production.

Earlier this year, ams announced plans to acquire VCSEL company Princeton Optronics, saying that it saw a big future for the tiny lasers in 3D sensing applications – with Apple’s recent unveiling of a new iPhone incorporating VCSEL arrays for facial identification system confirming prior speculation that has seen several manufacturers ramp production.

The Princeton deal, completed in July, followed ams' January purchase of the micro-optics pioneer Heptagon. Heptagon's products are expected to complement the Princeton-developed VCSELs, and enable ams to provide a full sensor assembly.

Singapore site
As recently as May, ams said that it intended to invest “several hundred million dollars” at its Singapore site, although it did not specify the focus of the investment at the time.

“ams’ continued expansion in Singapore is the direct result of customer volume requirements for the company’s advanced sensor solutions and high-end optical packaging,” states the company now. “At JTC nanoSpace @ Tampines [sic], ams will manufacture micro-optic sensors for state-of-the-art mobile applications.

“This new facility complements the capacity at Ang Mo Kio and the company’s manufacturing operations in Austria, as well as manufacturing partnerships with major contract manufacturers around the world.”

ams’ CEO Alexander Everke said in a company announcement: “Singapore is a vital part of ams’ R&D and manufacturing strategy. We are investing in differentiating technologies, advanced equipment and employees in the region, and we are committed to long-term operations in Singapore for our cutting-edge design and process technology.”

The latest move by ams follows last year’s acquisition of Jena-based spectral sensing company MAZeT, as well as the University of Cambridge, UK, spin-out, Cambridge CMOS Sensors.

The company is also expanding its wafer manufacturing capacity in Utica, New York, where the first products are expected to roll off the new production line in the first half of next year.

Lim Kok Kiang, assistant managing director of the Singapore Economic Development Board, said of the Singapore investment: “ams’ new activities are also in line with Singapore’s push to capture new growth opportunities in areas such as sensors in IoT applications.”

VCSEL ramp ‘pulled forward’
In its most recent financial results, for the first half of 2017, ams posted a net loss of €34 million, despite a sharp year-on-year increase in sales to €331 million following the recent acquisitions.

When it posted those results in July, ams said that it had completed the Princeton deal faster than expected, noting that with the ability to supply each of the components used in optical sensors, it would begin to pursue 3D sensing opportunities “aggressively”.

“We are already seeing substantial VCSEL business opportunities and have therefore decided to pull forward an investment into internal VCSEL manufacturing capacity to exploit differentiating technology and cost advantages,” it reported.

“In order to prepare for expected volume opportunities from 2019 onwards we plan to build a VCSEL manufacturing line in Singapore in two stages at a total expense of around €100 million, over a period of approximately 24 months.”

The move puts ams into a certain amount of competition with more established VCSEL producers like Lumentum, Finisar, and II-VI – all of which have also been investing in production capacity as the potential scale of the 3D sensing market opportunity in mobile handsets has become clear.

ams is differentiated in that it can also supply the other optical components required in those sensor products, and its management team believes that the company is in line to grow its revenues at a compound annual growth rate of 40 per cent for the period 2016-2019.

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