Sematech Seeks Money for Future
Consortium's effort to revitalize US computer-chip industry is unfinished, member firms say
NEARING the end of its initial five years, Sematech is preparing to ask Congress to fund another five. The consortium of 13 United States semiconductor manufacturers and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been talking up its achievements and is preparing to announce a proposed "Sematech II" work program.Sematech, based in Austin, Texas, was founded in 1987 to restore the US lead in technology for making computer chips. It aimed to develop the technology to produce chips with circuits only 0.35 microns wide, bettering Japan, which can make circuits half a micron wide. By next September, the end of Sematech's initial phase, the consortium will have some prototype tools for achieving the 0.35 micron standard, says Gene Conner, senior vice president of operations at Advanced Micro Devices and a Sematech board member. Through DARPA, a Defense Department agency, US taxpayers provide half of Sematech's annual $200 million operating budget. The other half comes from the chipmakers - companies like Intel, Texas Instruments, and IBM Corporation - with 80 percent of US production capacity. Without renewed commitments, financing will run out when fiscal year 1992 ends next Sept. 30. Member companies laud Sematech for allowing them to solve a problem once rather than 13 times. (Initially Sematech had 14 members but two recently merged.) Despite the savings, the companies argue that Sematech still needs government money. "We haven't won the war by any means," Mr. Conner says. The US semiconductor industry "has done a spectacular job of investing in itself," but has been targeted by foreign governments for competition, he says. The US needs a thriving semiconductor industry because chips are a "vital and critical link to the entire information industry," the world's biggest, Conner adds. US companies have complained, and two US government studies have confirmed, that Japanese suppliers of cutting-edge equipment, products, or materials sometimes serve Japanese manufacturers faster than US firms, putting the American companies at a disadvantage. Sematech chief operating officer William George says the consortium wasn't created just to compete against Japan, since other countries are also active in the industry. All the chipmaking equipment developed because of Sematech will be for sale to other countries, too. What's important, Mr. George says, is that the equipment be made in the US. "It's just a fact that the better support for any given tool is almost always achievable in the country-of-origin of that tool. That's were the experts live. And they speak the same language you do." He notes that one US supplier of a machine that deposits tungsten on silicon wafers "had been very successful very early in their life but had gotten very complacent in their technology improvement, and were being challenged by competitors." Sematech gave the company money to improve the reliability, performance, and maintainability of its machine, now guaranteed to be the lowest-cost to own in the world. DARPA will recommend a funding figure for fiscal year 1993 to President Bush, who by Jan. 15 will present a proposed budget to Congress. Last month the consortium proposed a work program for five more years to its board members. After modification and approval, the plan will be unveiled at Sematech's hilltop headquarters, possibly by the end of the year. Conner cites three priorities: * Continue to develop close relations with the semiconductor industry's suppliers. Through Sematech the industry now speaks with one voice, rather than 13, to suppliers on part specifications, standards, etc. * Develop computer-integrated chip manufacturing. Machine results are monitored and instantly fed back to the machines to improve their performance. * Work on "the factory of the future." The computer modeling techniques now applied to chips would be extended to the machines that make chips and to entire fabrication facilities.