The U.S. semiconductor industry, increasingly pressed by competition from Japan, Wednesday announced its long-expected plan to form an industrywide consortium to develop state-of-the-art manufacturing technology to preserve the narrowing American lead in product innovation.
"The problem today is that individual companies find themselves in a struggle against nations with nationwide industrial policies targeted on entire industries," said Irwin Federman, chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Assn.
The association's board voted unanimously at an annual meeting here Wednesday to go forward with the consortium, to be called Sematech. Unlike the semiconductor projects at two existing consortiums--the Semiconductor Research Center in Research Triangle, N.C, and Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp. of Austin, Tex.--Sematech calls for manufacturing operations. As such, it would raise new antitrust questions that would need to be worked out with the Justice Department and Congress.
Charles E. Sporck, president of National Semiconductor and chief instigator of the consortium idea, said Sematech would be dedicated to developing "the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology in the world" and that it would seek funding from the industry and federal government, primarily the Defense Department.
Sporck, stressing that the idea is only in an early planning stage, acknowledged that key questions even beyond the antitrust issues remain unanswered about the consortium. The industry, for example, has not decided what kind of chips the consortium should make as its vehicle for developing advanced technology. Also undetermined is how much money the consortium needs to raise from industry and government and what sort of relationship it should maintain with government.
Even so, Sporck said Sematech will move past the planning stage and into active research and development by June 1, and that a plant will be developing and testing production technology within 18 months.
Sporck said that Sematech would dovetail perfectly with the proposal last month by the Defense Science Board, a high-level Pentagon task force. Under that plan, the Defense Department would contribute $200 million a year for five years to a research institute to be formed by the American semiconductor industry.
But Sporck declined to commit the industry to developing any specific product, such as the advanced D-RAM (dynamic random access memory) chips urged in the Pentagon report as "an appropriate technology on which the institute could focus its efforts." D-RAM chips are intricately designed circuits that store electronically coded information.
Sporck said that Sematech would focus on the process, not the product. Although a D-RAM chip "might well be the best vehicle for developing production technology, the vehicle is not the issue," he said.
The various efforts to invigorate the U.S. semiconductor industry have been fueled largely by Japanese firms' capture of nearly half of the world chip market and almost all of the D-RAM business. In August, a trade agreement was reached that, among other things, called for Japanese firms to stop selling chips here and in other countries at below-market prices. U.S. industry and government officials, however, have accused the Japanese of not living up to the accord.