What can Europe teach America? A little self-help, for starters

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May 1, 2003 — Is the United States from Mars, Europe from Venus? Europeans’ affinity for debate vs. Americans’ penchant to go it alone seems to be swirling around many arenas these days. Recent world events aside, the contrast might also apply to the MEMS industry: Europeans like to talk, while Americans remain stoically silent.
But now, some Americans want a little more Venus and less Mars with their MEMS.

They plan to do this by creating their own version of Europe’s user-supplier clubs (USCs) — talk shops of a sort, which are a creation of Nexus, a nonprofit association based in Grenoble, France, and Europe’s largest MEMS and microsystems network. Its mission is to promote MEMS commercialization in European industry.

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Nexus provides its members with networking opportunities and market analyses, produces an industry road map and works to promote microtechnology at industrial and governmental levels. The USCs are the backbone of Nexus, established to allow MEMS users and suppliers to get to know one another, share ideas, discuss technical issues and talk about ways microtechnology can be integrated into products.
Nexus encourages development of a number of USCs for different sectors. There are eight USCs in fields as diverse as aerospace and geophysics, pharmaceutical and analytical, household appliances and telecommunications, and more are forming.

Members stress that real results come out of the synergies stirred up when 15 to 30 MEMS professionals get together in one room. They say that group meetings have sparked new projects and produced several periodic road maps for their sectors.

“These user-supplier clubs are very useful for road maps,” said Patric Salomon, who heads the Design and Modeling Simulation USC. “I think it’s difficult to put three people into a room and write a road map, but out of these discussions it was very easy to get the right information together.”

Now, some believe, it’s time to export that model to the United States.

“What’s really lacking in the U.S. MEMS industry is a relationship between users and suppliers,” said Ellen McDevitt of the MEMS Industry Group, a North American trade association that is striving to bring the USC model to American shores. McDevitt said she wants to strengthen the link between users and suppliers on both the business and technical sides, which would especially help small- and medium-size MEMS companies.

The USCs’ American debut is scheduled to take place at this year’s METRIC conference, Sept. 18-19 in Pittsburgh. Reliability will be the focus of the USC debut, since doubts about MEMS’ dependability among industry leaders is one of the major factors that blocks wider adoption of the technology.

McDevitt said USCs never took root on the western shores of the Atlantic because the United States never had an organization to promote them. Nexus has been around for a decade; the MEMS Industry Group is two years old. Others cite differences in U.S. and European philosophies that have prevented USCs from sprouting on American soil.

Americans have a different way of doing business; they want to grab it all with one hand and keep it,” laughed Schiu Sche, president of the Taiwan-based NeoStones MicroFabrication Corp. “Europeans tend to cooperate more with each other. Also, Europeans have patience and Americans don’t. Just look at the sports they play.”

He said the United States could use a little more of a cooperative spirit and he hopes the USCs, if they take root, might encourage that. He believes big U.S. microtech companies have a business philosophy that keeps them from sharing the information wealth, even when there would be no risk to sharing. In the end, he said, a lack of cooperation holds the whole industry back.

“In my view, if you cooperate and put core competencies together from different sources that everyone can access, that’s a better way to be innovative,” Sche said.

Still, the U.S. situation cannot all be boiled down to a love of cricket versus basketball. In fact, there are already some groups in the United States that look suspiciously like USCs. Salomon cited the Bay Area MEMS Club in California that brings regional MEMS professionals together on a regular basis.
“Same thing, different name,” he said.

Salomon is cautiously optimistic that Venusian USCs can succeed at winning fans in a more Mars-like United States, although he believes it could take some time. He predicts regional networks might have a better chance of gelling, since distances in the United States are greater than in Europe, and USCs only really work if their members get together under one roof. 

“A user-supplier club is only as good as its members and their attendance,” he said. “But there are real benefits when it works and I think people in the United States are realizing that.”


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