Cohu’s VP Seeks to Revolutionise Penang’s Tech Future

By Carolyn Khor

June 2024 FEATURE
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ONE MAN, one job, one company, one vision—this sums up Wai-Kong Chen’s career as an innovator of high-speed digital instrument design. Now, as Vice President of Cohu—a Nasdaq-listed company and global technology leader headquartered in the US supplying test, automation, inspection and metrology products and services to the semiconductor industry— he brings decades of expertise back to Malaysia in hopes of nurturing the next generation of local talents for the global stage.

The establishment of Cohu’s Semiconductor Test Group (STG) R&D centre in Penang holds significant personal meaning for Wai-Kong, a seasoned innovator with two patents to his name, after 40 years in the US. Born in Tapah, he left Malaysia in 1984 to pursue his studies in Electrical Engineering at the University of Louisiana. “One month after graduating, I was offered a position at Cohu, and that is the company that I have been with from day one.”

With a firm belief in the untapped potential of Penang’s bright minds, Wai-Kong envisions a future where he can inspire, mentor, collaborate and guide young engineers here to their fullest potential, pushing boundaries and forging ahead of others in this highly competitive field.

“Back in my day, we were taught through rote learning. But think about all the high-tech companies—they are where they are because of the way students have been trained. They are encouraged to be inquisitive and to develop critical thinking. In the West, students are taught to think outside the box, to be creative and to find innovative solutions to problems. I think I can bring that culture back here,” he says. “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”

The core product of Cohu Penang is the Automated Test Equipment (ATE) used in manufacturing and testing environments to test and diagnose electronic components, printed circuit boards (PCBs), integrated circuits (ICs) and devices. Highlighting the importance of the two key elements in high-speed digital designs, Wai-Kong points out: “High-precision, high-signal fidelity timing accuracy in the picosecond, and level in the microvolt accuracy are the two key elements. To accomplish these, we will expose local talents to PCB routing techniques, methods to accommodate Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) I/O timing inaccuracies, and various design techniques for generating flexible waveforms.”

Wai-Kong surmised that this approach contrasts with organically grown ATE companies, many of which make incremental changes from an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) product.

“Penang is Cohu’s first high-speed digital instrument R&D centre in Malaysia. In the long run, Cohu’s target is to develop digital instrument designers organically,” he says, adding that his aim is to train engineers to design a digital instrument from scratch to completion for the international market segment, instead of competing in a limited market space.

In the coming days, as Wai-Kong spearheads Cohu’s efforts to build and lead the Penang design centre—a 20,000sqft facility in Bayan Lepas—he hopes to employ well over a dozen engineers in his team by the end of the year, and many more over the next five years.

“When our company decided to have an offshore design centre, we scouted many places and considered the per capital export of that location. Penang is 14 times better than the state of New York in that aspect,” he claims, adding that to hit that sort of number, there have to be good policies in place, along with a talent pool. “If we compare KL with Penang, then we’ll find that KL has fewer tech manufacturing companies than Penang.”

Indeed, in 2023, Penang ranked first in Malaysia for its investment performance. According to MIDA, Malaysia’s approved investments totalled RM329.5bil, with Penang leading the pack at RM71.9bil, followed by KL (RM58.3bil), Selangor (RM55.3bil), Johor (RM43.1bil) and Kedah (RM28.7bil).

Meanwhile, Penang also recorded RM63.4bil in approved manufacturing investments for 2023 for the manufacturing sector, compared to RM13.7bil the previous year. This marks an increase of RM49.7bil, or 463% of approved manufacturing investments, within a year. Out of this total, Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) accounted for 95%, with Domestic Direct Investments (DDIs) comprising the remaining 5%.

“Besides, Penang is a strategic location; being in close proximity to our contract manufacturer and customer base solves a lot of logistical challenges,” explains Wai-Kong. “And of course, the biggest draw to choosing Penang is that I am coming home to Malaysia after 40 years.”

Daring To Disrupt

Wai-Kong points out Cohu’s ability to keep up with emerging trends and the ability to deliver their products and services to customers in a timely and cost-effective manner.

“It’s all about the added-value high-speed test designs that we can provide. Testing costs a lot of money—about one-third of production cost. So, when we have the capability to develop customer-specified testing technologies and solutions that execute tests with precision and accuracy, what our customers get is cost-savings which translates to better profits in the end.

“As a one-stop total solution, our ATE system provides all three parts: the tester, interface and handler. Not all companies provide all three parts of the ATE system. Some may provide a wide range of testing equipment but lack the interface components or specialised handler solutions.

“For example, if a smartphone has seven major components, then the manufacturer will need seven different sets of instruments to test those different parts; we have the capacity to provide a one-stop solution to all the E&E’s testing needs,” Wai-Kong asserts.

Penang’s well-developed infrastructure, skilled workforce and supportive business environment have attracted numerous multinational corporations (MNCs) to establish their manufacturing operations in Penang. It also holds a growing but significant position in the global manufacturing landscape, where 86% of its manufacturing sector consists of Electrical and Electronics (E&E), contributing significantly to the global supply chain and Malaysia’s exports and GDP.

Therefore, Cohu’s additional presence in Penang, Malaysia, apart from its existing manufacturing plant in Melaka, will bolster its reputation among global players already established in Malaysia, such as those in semiconductor manufacturing, consumer electronics, automotive electronics and medical devices.

“What I envision for Cohu Penang is for big changes to happen—I am looking at a revolution,” he states. “We need to disrupt the status quo, challenge conventional thinking and push the boundaries of innovation. It’s not just about keeping up with the industry; it’s about leading the charge, setting new standards and driving transformative change. That’s what I want for Penang.”

Carolyn Khor

is a former ministerial press secretary, a former United Nations volunteer and an independent researcher/writer.