by Brian Dance, European Contributing Editor
To gain perspective on the impact of regional R&D collaboration on Europe’s supply chain, and the threat of reduced R&D funding to Europe’s IC industry, WaferNEWS sat down with Ian Burnett, director and past chairman of JEMI UK (Joint Equipment Manufacturers Initiative), an association of companies that supply equipment and materials to the semiconductor manufacturing industry. Ian is also a member of the UK National Advisory Committee for Electronics Materials and Devices, and is involved with a number of UK companies manufacturing semiconductor processing equipment.
WaferNEWS: How has the European supply chain benefited from regional R&D collaboration?
Burnett: The specific funding of the whole supply chain and the encouragement of the partnerships of SMEs has resulted in fully qualified off-the-shelf solutions to a number of key issues in the ITRS Roadmap. This not only encouraged the device manufacturers to readily adopt these technologies, but has also strengthened the equipment and materials sector of the supply chain, many of which have become globally competitive in terms of their technology and reputation. A very good example is the rapid progress made in advanced substrates, such as SOI and strained SOI, where relatively small material suppliers have had good access to state-of-the-art process platforms, such as that at Crolles and IMEC, enabling them to offer fully characterized process solutions to their other customers globally.
WaferNEWS: Do you see the changes at Crolles as a negative development or as an opportunity?
Burnett: The basic Crolles platform is sufficiently advanced to remain a center of operations in its own right. However, changes in the allegiances of the partners provide the opportunity to add to the partnership and adapt to the new management structure, with considerable scope for the development of both new technologies as well as further development of the current work. New partners, and the chance to partner with some of the major Asian players, can serve only to enhance the technical credibility of the Crolles facilities as a world-class center for silicon process developments. Close ties with the partners’ chip design teams is vital for the early adoption of new process techniques and materials to meet the ambitious time lines of the ITRS.
WaferNEWS: How does the threat of reduced R&D funding impact the European IC industry?
Burnett: There is a very strong threat to the significant progress that Europe has made in programs such as MEDEA+ from the reduced R&D funding available to industry in some countries¿and, in particular, the bias in funding only certain sectors. For example, in a fully integrated program it is necessary to fund the academic sector, SMEs, equipment and materials suppliers, chip designers, and device manufacturers, in each case using a funding model that is applicable to that operating in the sector. It can never work reliably if a university is funded in a collaborative program where only 50% funding is available. In the case of a commercial company, the 50% funding model works very well, although specifically for SMEs access to properly funded academic partners is essential.
WaferNEWS: Is specific nanoelectronics funding likely to dilute funding in other areas of microelectronics?
Burnett: Nanotechnology is a fashionable term and is often applied in an irrelevant way simply to secure funding. Nanotechnology has an important part to play, but only as an integrated part of ‘global development programs’. It is important to always have a ‘customer’ through the technology to maintain focus. Blue-sky research requires a completely different funding model and approach.
WaferNEWS: How can the new European Union member states and the countries of Eastern Europe, including Russia, contribute significantly to European microelectronics?
Burnett: Many of these countries have had long running developments of specific technologies, particularly in the field of materials, although there was not always a fully fledged supply chain in any one country. Partnerships with established trade associations such as JEMI and SEMI in other European countries will significantly speed up their integration with the European industry and enhance collaborative research.
WaferNEWS: How can European IC companies combat market pressures to offshore their processes to other regions?
Burnett: The continued and possibly accelerating consumer pressure on price will always dictate that component prices are forced down, and this will continue. The most important benefit of collaboration is the ability to generate IP in the companies and countries where the work is conducted — it is more likely to lock in that activity which cannot be easily exported, since highly experienced and knowledgeable staff are unwilling to move to countries with low-cost economies. The rapid rate of onward development ensures that flexibility and the ability to meet very tight timelines is more important than the labor cost.
The vast majority of wafer fabs built in low-cost economy countries are constructed by, or in partnership with, European, US, or Japanese companies, and filled with equipment from suppliers in those regions and run processes developed from the same regions. As many offshored operations remain under partial or complete ownership of the developing company, the location of the volume manufacturing is not really significant on the health of the industry as a whole. Following the most advantageous state support arguably can benefit only the consumer — the increasing pervasion of semiconductors into all aspects of everyday life, as envisioned by NXP Technologies (formerly Philips), ensures the high-growth model (Moore’s Law and More Moore) upon which we all depend. — B.D.