In the early- to mid-1980s, it was perceived that the U.S. equipment and materials industry was losing ground and falling behind Japan, causing a major crisis in the United States.
This prompted major U.S. chip makers to band together and form a new consortium to help the domestic equipment and materials industry. The consortium--International Sematech--arguably provided a lift for the U.S. industry. It also helped the United States to regain and sustain its edge in semiconductor manufacturing technology during the 1990s.
Now, there's a new crisis in the U.S. semiconductor equipment/ materials industry, but this time around, U.S. chip makers are sitting on the sidelines. At the same time, Sematech's role is nebulous these days and the organization is no longer the exclusive champion for U.S. fab-tool and materials makers.
The real trouble is that the United States has lost its position in the critical lithography, track, and electron-beam tool markets--just in the span of two to three years. Other U.S. equipment and material technologies have also eroded in recent times.
In 2001, ASML Holding N.V. of the Netherlands acquired Silicon Valley Group Inc., the last leading-edge lithography vendor in the United States, for $1.6 billion.
Recently, FSI International exited from the litho track business, leaving the market to Japan's Tokyo Electron Ltd. And earlier this month, reports surfaced that Applied Materials Inc. has backed away from the e-beam business. Now, Applied--the sole merchant e-beam supplier in the United States--reportedly obtained U.S. government funding to pursue future technologies, including multi-beam writers for maskless applications (see September 10 story).
What's next? The critical U.S. photomask industry is in danger. For months, the U.S. government, as well as domestic chip makers and mask suppliers, have been talking about forming an R&D consortium to help the struggling industry close the gap with Japan. "Something has to be done," declared Ken Rygler, president of photomask technology consultancy Rygler and Associates Inc. in Austin Texas.
Japan's Dai Nippon Printing Co. Ltd. and Toppan Printing Co. Ltd. tend to focus on the high-end of the photomask business, leaving U.S. vendors DuPont Photomask Inc. and Photronics Inc. to slug it out on the low-margin, commodity side of the arena, Rygler said.
This is not to say the United States is behind in all technologies. On the contrary, the United States is strong in process-equipment technologies, like CVD, etch, PVD, and RTP, as well as backend tools, such as ATE and wire bonding.
Still, the United States needs a new, broad formula to remain competitive in chip equipment and IC manufacturing in general. Unlike the 1980s, however, no one here wants to step up to the plate today. No wonder why there's talk that semiconductor manufacturing may become a lost art in the United States.