Japanese research takes aim at US hold on chip design
At Fujitsu Corporation's new semiconductor lab a hundred miles southwest of Tokyo, Dr. Takahiko Misugi has just spent 15 minutes ticking off his company's accomplishments in the semiconductor research that forms the backbone of the computer revolution. It is the stuff of countless PhD dissertations: a laundry list of arcane innovations peppered with references to HEMT and CMOST, gallium arsenide and electron mobility rates.Skip to next paragraph
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``Japanese aren't supposed to be so good at basic research, right?'' says Dr. Misugi, who punctuates the irony of his question by dropping a small stack of Japanese research papers on the table in front of him. ``Well, we're trying to be better at it than we used to be.'' Taking the long view
Becoming ``better at it'' has almost become an obsession among Japan's semiconductor manufacturers. As the 18-month semiconductor boom tapers off amid widespread concern about oversupply, producers in the United States are pruning their investments in semiconductor plant and equipment by as much as 20 percent.
But not those in Japan. Japanese firms surpassed those of the US in semiconductor capital investment for the first time last year, topping $4 billion in 1984 -- more than either the Japanese car or steel industries, both of which are traditionally more capital-intensive.
The investment gap with the US promises to widen. In the fiscal year that for many companies begins this week, Nomura Securities estimates that market leaders like Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi, NEC, and Toshiba will be increasing their investment by 15 to 20 percent above the $2.5 billion collectively invested in 1984.
At the same time, most producers are increasing the numbers of researchers studying new semiconductor technologies. A few, such as NEC and Matsushita, have taken the heretofore unconventional approach of importing researchers from overseas.
``We cannot increase our market share by tying ourselves to the short-term fortunes of the market,'' says Akira Harada, executive vice-president of Matsushita. ``We take the long view.''
So far, that approach has been a successful one as Japanese producers have steadily expanded their activities in the semiconductor field. From a position of serious technological disadvantage in the mid-1970s, Japan has arrived at a point where it hosts three of the five largest semiconductor manufacturers in the world: NEC, third behind Texas Instruments and Motorola, is trailed by Hitachi and Toshiba. Japanese companies accounted for nearly 40 percent of the $23.4 billion in worldwide semiconductor shipments in 1984, up from 36.8 percent of the $18.7 billion in '83. Customizing chips
Particularly spectacular have been the achievements of Japanese companies in the area of memory chips. More than 60 percent of these data-storing computer circuits came from Japan, according to Dataquest, a California market-research firm. Yet for all their success in dominating the market for 64k and 256k RAM (random access memory) chips, many company executives say they will have to work harder than ever to maintain their impressive level of performance.
The reason: A trend toward more complicated ``customized'' chip designs for specific computer applications, some observers speculate, could leave many Japanese producers behind. Their strength, the thinking goes, lies with a vaunted production technology -- an aptitude at producing mass quantities of relatively simple chip designs at the lowest cost -- rather than an ability to develop elaborate chip designs for limited production.