If you’re a U.S. longtime component vendor, you remember with a certain twinge in your stomach the technology and market-share battles with Japan in the 1980s.
For a while, it looked like the Japanese were not just eating part of our lunch; they were going to eat the whole thing. But then—maybe due to an innovation shift that sped disaggregation or maybe due to protectionist saber-rattling (see the SIA) or maybe due to other factors too—it stopped.
The 1990s saw the United States consistently win back semiconductor market share. Japan fell into a long declined and the rest is history.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to writing the history books. Japanese components vendors are back eating your lunch again.
That’s what I gleaned from reading a Nomura Japanese Equity research report recently that analyzed the iPhone 4 design.
While you’ve no doubt read tear downs, including ours from UBM TechInsights, this particular analysis dives into
Ultra-small passive components
Ceramic packages for camera modules
Noise suppression components.
“Considering that the companies that are able to supply custom components and parts with the characteristics that are used in smart phones (e.g., 0402-size parts, ceramic packages) are limited to some of the
top manufacturers, we think almost all Japanese component makers are the suppliers with the
exception of assembly-related parts,” wrote authors Manabu Akizuki and Yujiro Nishibori in the Nomura analysis.
“For Japanese component makers, their growing presence as suppliers for key products such as the iPhone 4 is a positive development that has helped differentiate them from other Asian manufacturers,” they wrote.
While Apple is ferociously secretive about its suppliers, the authors suggest companies and potential iPhone 4 design wins:
Filters, duplexers, antenna switches, band pass filters: Murata and TDK-EPS
“At present, only Japanese and a few U.S. companies are able to propose innovative electronic components, meaning that many Japanese makers have a high global market share. Such companies have sufficient capabilities and production capacity to supply parts for products such as the iPhone 4, which require a rapid startup of volume production at the time of new model launches, followed by the winding down of production as sales taper off."
The point of this post isn’t to shame U.S. vendors but to illuminate what I think is a core lesson companies may be learning after the past 30 years of disaggregation—namely, it’s not always permanently good.
Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano (pictured) in fact has spent time in Ivy-covered walls studying one facet of this: the effect owned manufacturing has on product innovation.
While the complex logic vendors have pointed to Moore's Law and escalating costs as the reason they've gone fabless, most U.S. components vendors still own their own manufacturing.
But consider the cultural implications in Japan, where companies across the electronics-sophistication spectrum have kept their manufacturing.
Is it the reason they’re winning hearts and minds and iPhone 4 design ins?
About retaining manufacturing capability, unless someone(government) is going to subsidize a losing proposition, I don't know how you do that. We can't even get government to properly support the schools. Businesses would rather loan money and provide high margin services than do capital intensive things like build products. If the US wants to preserve it’s manufacturing base then we need to change our policies around movement of goods, capital and jobs across borders, meaning barriers to protect domestic margins. The capital intensive nature and poor returns of the semi-business as a whole has most large companies divesting themselves of their semi business. How are you going to beat TSMC with it’s growing share and 38% net margin? Intel is at 27% and they have a monopoly. IBM is at 14.5%. How much longer do you think IBM is going to stay in the Semi business? The Japanese in particular, Mitsubishi and Hitachi with Renesas is most notable large scale divestiture. Also at $1Billion a shot to build a fab, unless you are Intel with sure thing returns, you are Fabless or going that way soon. Regarding Apple’s motivations, I think Apple fears Chinese competition more than it fears Japanese competition, which may account for the high Japan content. The Japanese are less likely to borrow their designs and not to play games with delivery, and even if they do, they are less likely to be harmful of Apple’s business. It’s all about priorities. Right or wrong, the US values rates of return over jobs, technological capabilities and maintaining itself as a world leader, and that’s the society model we’ve chosen to live or die by.
Victor, good observations. I have a hard time comparing earnings numbers from companies in different countries or even comparing companies within the US given accounting standards used and creativity, Enron and Wall Street serve as stark reminders.
If the US is leaking technical and manufacturing prowess, we shouldn't waste money buying buckets to bail with (ie, direct dollars to corporations), rather, stop the source of the leak(s) with sensible policy to level competitive playing fields. I will give one example below, although others can be similarly drawn.
An advantage to outsource manufacturing is said to be lower overall product cost, thus making US companies globally competitive. It sounds reasonable. However, those product savings come from a multitude of factors, one of which is the cost of environmental compliance US companies pay when manufacturing here. What happens to the off-shore cost advantage when an environmental tax is added to the cost of units imported into the US? For units manufactured in the EU with RoHS in place there would likely be no tax required. For units from other countries with lax regulations on air and water, the tax would be noticeable. Corporations profiting by dodging environmental responsibilities in the Far East at the expense of those citizens is.... fill in your own word.
US manufacturing is quite competitive if the playing field is leveled appropriately.
Vince, I think you hit the nail on the head: Some form of government subsidy (better depreciation rates or something) would help immensely.
This is a big policy decision: Do we believe that manufacturing not only is a crucial differentiator for U.S. businesses but also a vital national interest? You could make both those arguments.
While I'm not big proponent of government aid, we'd have dirt roads across much of the country without government subsidies of one form or another.
I don't think there's an elegant answer to be found in an era of government gridlock.
We're talking about cultures with highly developed senses of nationalism competing against a culture (us) that abhors nationalism. Americans have a huge fascination with playing fair and that attitude is encouraged throughout the world by countries who do not. Whenever we start moving inward there is a hue and cry worldwide that we are being selfish.
None of that is going to change anytime soon... even if the Republicans win in November. Being fair is part of our national psyche and as the old adage goes, nice guys finish last.
Brian, like you I am not a big fan of government subsidies. In this instance the government doesn't have to overreach with boatloads of dollars or any other form of subsidy.
Just doing a better job to create a better and fairer environment for U.S. firms would be a good starting point. Enforce the WTO rules of the game rather than let nations slide to the detriment of others (US). That would be major progress for the USA and U.S. component companies. Lack of enforcement costs U.S. firms greatly. That's where I would start. If nations don't follow the so-called legally binding rules they collaborated on then withdraw. Enforce what's on the books. We are an open society and an extremely open market that welcomes all – even unruly Scottish people! Others need to be a little more open as well. Comes down to the govt better representing us at the US Trade Rep. office.
I couldn’t agree more with the comment that we in America like to play by the rules, fair play and so on. We just need to do a better job making sure everybody plays by the rules.
Government could decide to get into the business of propping up the bedrock of innovation (common good, anyone?) instead of propping up, well, rackets. $1T came out of nowhere when the housing bubble popped.
Germany is proving that you can provide free education, free health care, and still beat capitalists at their own game.
Stew, good to see you hale, hearty and cantankerous as ever!
Play by the rules indeed. I think that's going to be a very contentious battleground in the next decade as we slog our way out of this mess!
Perhaps we are solving the wrong problem?
It appears to my eye, that the R and D component - especially the research component - is a cost center in accounting circles.
This is madness. Yes, you spend money for a future return, but it is one of the two activities that generate real wealth. The other being manufacturing.
Service industries depend on that generated wealth to survive - forget this factor, and even Walmart will feel the pinch.
I think that we should re-think our ideas of money. Money is a symbol for barter - value for value. But I could well be wrong ... maybe.
With almost the highest business taxes among the developed nations, globalization will have every large US corporation off our shores sooner or later. Approximately 50% of wage earners are paying no income taxes, so they have no motivation to vote for anything but more freebies from the diminishing productive class. We need to make radical changes to our tax structure and voteg for politicians that use the tax code as a way to efficiently generate revenue and not as their personal playground to beat up on todays bogeyman e.g. the unworthy top 2%.
You have to live where you work, and your housing prices are too high compared to Asia. Compliance is an issue for smaller businesses, but all that aside, do you realise that over 10 trillions dollars of debt will dwarf any contribution electronics can make? For years Harvard and other business cases preached outsourcing, globalisation etc, and I could never work it out, besides had no power to change it. I abandoned electronics at 53 (with B.Sc and M.Sc) and write software for Apple devices. At least they still innovate even if they manufacture in China and by all accounts they are highly profitable.
Yup. What we probably need to do is make capital purchases tax credits, as well as salaries tax credits, at least for manufacturing. It shifts the tax burdens from the employers to the employees, but if it means you have a job it's at least an equitable trade, if not a profitable trade.
At least for Chinese goods a tariff is probably necessary, at least as long as they dictate the value of the Yuan. It would probably help a lot if the Federal Gov't balances the budget and creates a structural surplus so as to pay down the debt and just as importantly, stop overinflating the economy so that we don't have any more housing bubbles that tanks the whole economy.
As long as we have voter apathy, and unions that care about protecting what they have rather than growing the pie, the problem will probably be very problematic. And the fact that companies don't seem willing to dig in and protect their turf, and as long as economists and politicians don't address problems with the free trade model that don't address such things as what happens when one guy has all the cash, the problem may be intractable.
An opinion from the "outsource"... I think is good US does delegate manufaturing because we get jobs that otherwise we wouldn't have.
Perhaps that is some of the rules... there are eagles and there are ducks... not every body can be an eagle... and to confine manufacturing inside the country would be like leaving in an island wouldn't it? I believe it from Japan but from US?
come on... that's history.
And the funny thing... here we have US people saying they want their manufacturing plants back and we outsource countries are saying "we want to design and R & D"... human nature is funny... we think the neighbor grass is greener.
There's a balance to be struck. As an industry, we've spent the last three decades trying to hyper-specialize and cost-out where we can cost-out (or reduce).
You can reduce the clutter in your house by getting rid of the furniture but eventually you have nowhere to sit.
Separately, think about how much we as employees take on today because automation allows functions once handled by secretaries (travel arrangements, buying office supplies, etc.).
It's great for the bottom line but those minutes and hours spent searching for great airfares should be spent on the tasks we were hired to do.