'Chip' wars: USA, Inc. vs. Japan, Inc.

US semiconductor manufacturers are beginning to circle the wagons in earnest, banding together in joint research ventures for defense against the onslaught of Japanese ''chips.''

In March, at a secret summit in Florida, 16 American electronics firms discussed forming a research and development collective, tentatively titled Microelectronics and Computer Technology Enterprises.

And on April 13 the Semiconductor Industry Association announced another group effort, the Semiconductor Research Cooperative (SRC). The SRC--with 13 firms currently on its steering committee--will fund pure semiconductor research at US universities, aiming to toughen American technology and attract more engineering talent to the semiconductor field.

''While there is fierce competition among these companies in the marketplace, there can be cooperation in research. Research is critical to the future of the industry,'' says Erich Bloch, an IBM vice-president and chairman of the SRC.

Mr. Bloch, announcing the formation of SRC, cited increasing costs and research complexity, along with foreign competition, as reasons for pooling resources. Joint ventures cut wasteful duplication and allow participants to take a longer range view, he said.

''It's become obvious our domestic semiconductor industry is facing tremendous challenges,'' Bloch says. ''Successes in semiconductors are becoming more difficult to achieve.''

SRC members--IBM, Burroughs, Intel, and Advanced Micro Devices, among others--include both semiconductor producers and large-scale users. Dues are figured on the relative size of semiconductor production or consumption; in return, members get first crack at research results, without paying licensing fees on patentable material.

The SRC hopes to dole out $6 million this year, about doubling industry support of academic probing. Contracts would be let for specific research: SRC directors say contemplated work includes developing very large-scale chips, researching new optical methods of scoring intricate chip designs, plotting to increase reliablity, and finding out if alternative materials such as gallium arsenide can be used in semiconductors.

As well as cutting against the tough individualist nature of US corporate competition, joint R&D ventures raise some delicate legal issues.

* Do they violate antitrust law? Microelectronics Enterprises, a research entity unto itself, may get a cold, disapproving stare from some Justice Department lawyers, say legal experts.

But SRC members say they expect no such problems - pointing out they simply distribute money, instead of doing the actual research themselves. Other groups, such as the Electric Power Research Institute, fund similar efforts, they say.

* Should foreign firms, and foreign-born engineers studying in the US, be excluded as security risks? Some SRC members, such as Signetics Corporation, are US subsidiaries of European corporations. Dr. Robert Noyce, vice-president of SRC member Intel Corporation, says the cooperative will include foreign firms whose domestic market is open to the US. Translate: no Japanese.

''We want to play by the same rules around the world,'' says Dr. Noyce

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