SEPARATING fact from fiction in United States-Japan trade disputes is no easy matter, especially when high-technology products are at issue. Take Nikon Corporation. Best known for its cameras, Nikon is also the world's leading producer of microlithography machines, known as steppers, that make semiconductors.
Sematech, the US government-industry consortium formed to improve American semiconductor technology, says Nikon favors its Japanese customers, providing them with the latest chipmaking machines before their US counterparts. Nikon vigorously denies the charge.
Improved ``steppers'' allow chipmakers to fabricate more powerful chips for computers, electronics, and telecommunications products. Exclusive access, even for a short period, could give Japan's electronics giants an advantage over US competitors.
Overseas shipments of Nikon's newest machines were often delayed because of a lack of English-speaking engineers to provide service. The US Trade Representative's office informally investigated in 1983 and concluded that Nikon had a legitimate concern about shipping the complex machines overseas before the bugs that inevitably arise could be worked out. Since then, Nikon's US support staff has grown, and complaints have diminished.
The controversy resurfaced late last year, when word spread that Perkin-Elmer, Nikon's leading American competitor, was looking for a buyer in Japan. Though Nikon denied any purchase plans, a host of US industry executives and members of Congress expressed their concern.
Sematech chairman Robert Noyce told a Senate Subcommittee that Nikon has a history of delaying entry of new machines into the US market. Sematech also provided a survey which charged that for two years Nikon allocated its ``level 6'' machines primarily to Japanese firms. And Nikon had not as of January even acknowledged the existence of a more advanced ``level 7'' machine, despite making it available to Japanese firms.
Other US specialists charged that Nikon does not work with US firms during the ``prototype phase'' of machine development.
Nikon initially chose not to respond, but after repeated questioning, company executives angrily denied the latest charges. ``Noyce was appealing to Congress because the Bush administration had plans to cut the Sematech budget,'' a top Nikon executive said.
Nikon says it would be self-defeating to discriminate against potential customers, since the world market for a stepper is only about 1,000. ``We operate globally because our survival depends on it,'' the executive said. He insisted that Nikon's policy is to divide evenly the placement of prototypes with US and Japanese firms, to introduce new machines in the US and Japanese markets simultaneously, and to fill orders as they are received.
Commercial shipments of the ``level 6'' machines, he said, began in late 1988. About eight months earlier, six prototypes were shipped to US firms.
Nikon says the ``level 7'' machine was introduced commercially in both Japan and the US last January, and that at least one is already installed in the US. The US firm placed the order in the middle of 1989, at a time when Sematech executives insist Nikon was refusing to acknowledge the existence of the machine. ``The machine was always available,'' the Nikon executive said. But while US firms apparently did not receive ``level 7'' prototypes, Sematech says Japanese firms did.
US businessmen in Tokyo say that Nikon has a particularly good relationship with Texas Instruments Inc., one of the largest US chipmakers. TI has ``level 6'' machines in Japan and the US, and is currently negotiating to obtain a ``level 7.'' Moreover, TI Japan, which has 5,000 employees, received an experimental X-ray lithography machine from Nikon that US executives estimate is three to four years away from commercialization.
Part of the picture
An executive of Sematech did not refute Nikon's claims, but insisted they amounted to only part of the picture. ``The Japanese have a way of presenting issues that to them may be the truth but to us is a lie,'' he said.
``But,'' he added, ``I want to emphasize that Nikon has been one of the better Japanese companies trying to improve things, and I hope that continues.''