HAKONE, Japan – As Japan’s ailing electronics manufacturers continue to lay off engineers by the thousands, the next move here is a focus of intense speculation around the global electronics industry.
Pontificating doom and gloom for Japan from afar is easy. Harder is to gather together a number of Japanese engineers -- all working at competing electronics companies -- in one room and actually ask them straight questions. What do they think has gone wrong, and what do they believe will be the fate of their employers, their jobs and the whole shootin’ match?
It took a Chinese-American CEO running a design service company in Shanghai to pull that off.
Wayne Dai, CEO of VeriSilicon, invited this past weekend (April 20) a dozen Japanese engineers who hold positions (or previously held positions) at rival companies such as Sony, Renesas, NEC, Hitachi, Panasonic, Fujitsu and MegaChips for a weekend retreat in Hakone -- roughly a two-hour train/cab ride from Tokyo. Also invited were VeriSilicon board members including Clark Jernigan, a venture partner at Austin Ventures, and Marco Landi, former chief operating officer at Apple Inc.
For Dai, once a professor of computer engineering at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the mission of his “Japanese Semiconductor Executive Forum” in Hakone was plain and simple. He wanted to probe the future of Japan’s electronics industry through the eyes of “open-minded Japanese engineers,” as he put it. He encouraged everyone who attended to think and speak freely as individuals, not as corporate spokesmen. Dai sought from his guests, before concluding the retreat, a consensus on five “specific” predictions -- what will happen to Japan’s electronics industry -- in precise language.
That he and his group did.
I was invited as a speaker and a participant -- on one condition. Although I’m allowed to report on the Forum, I agreed not to attribute quotes to any participant by name. Seeing a rare opportunity for a reporter to be a fly in the wall, this stipulation was a no-brainer. But I did exchange business cards with every participant, so I can be sure whom I’m not quoting.
Not everyone originally invited was able to make it to the event, however. An engineer at Fujitsu Semiconductor had to be elsewhere, to discuss his early retirement package with his employer. [Fujitsu has decided to shed 2,000 employees before spinning off its SoC business into a joint fabless design company with Panasonic.] An engineer at Panasonic also begged off, citing personal reasons.
Everyone who came had already given a lot of thought to what’s gone wrong with Japan’s electronics industry.
A Sony engineer observed that the decline of Japan’s SoC business comes down to one thing. “The whole SoC business model has changed to ‘turnkey solutions.’” Japanese semiconductor companies, without a turnkey solution, have no choice but to provide semi-custom SoCs to high-end CE manufacturers whose market share is shrinking. “We’ve been squeezed,” he said.
I worked as a Principal Engineer in the late 80's through the early 90's at a fairly large company that rather quickly went from the industry's darling to a hopeless basket case. That was Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
I learned and gained experience from looking at projects from a systems perspective. After DEC failed to perform to expectations and then evaporated, I looked at that experience too, from a systems perspective.
It's on a bigger scale but I believe also that the performance of a national industry must also be seen as part of a bigger system. The article here referenced decisions by government agencies including banks.
The article raised organization, vertical as opposed distributed, etc.
I was most interested in reading about how Japanese engineers identify themselves with a company, in which they fully expected to devote their entire careers. So even that, like the rest of the topics covered, strikes me as something that the US and European electronics industries have already gone through.
My own "paradigm shift" when this was going on was that engineers now, in the US, are seen by their fellow engineers much more like free agents. It's your name and your reputation that matters most and that precedes you, not so much the company you happen to work for today.
I remember at the start of my career, that a more seasoned engineer told me, "You don't owe any loyalty to the company." It sounded a bit harsh at the time, but with the big layoffs in the early to mid 1990s, I could see exactly what he meant. You owe loyalty to yourself first and foremost. The company can and will lay you off at the drop of a hat, if the bottom line doesn't add up right.
While I agree that engineers might and should see themselves as free agents, reality in the semiconductor industry is that they will work for a mid-size to large company. The economics of making chips do not lend themselves to true free agency, i.e., being a consultant for one's own firm. Please let me know how I'm wrong on this b/c I'd love to throw up my own shingle.
In that sense most of us are, or have been 'free agents'.
What I'm saying is that none of us are really free. We need to be relevant and marketable and that relevance and marketability are dictated from without.
Of course, but since we don't identify ourselves solely as an employee of this one company, it becomes OUR responsibility to keep ourselves relevant and marketable. And to make ourselves known to the community in which we operate.
In short, it becomes the individual engineer's job NOT to become identified as a drone working for just one company. You don't expect to be spoonfed, and you keep yourself educated and up to date.
Probably a dumb thing to say, but was there any discussion about the "overwork" culture in Japan? Having visited there a few times, I could never come to terms that tired Japanese engineers were staying in office, day after day, not going home, rarely spending time with their families - at times simply because their bosses were at office.
On an individual level, can not such pressure sap the mind of creating innovative ideas and the pleasure of working on technology?
I agree with this. How can someone be creative when the work culture itself is sapping their creativity? The purpose of work should be to support one's family, not to completely overshadow it.
I notice I often get my most creative ideas not while I am at work, but when my mind is relaxing on the way home, when I can actually muse about certain things.
If you look deeply into what'd happened, "over-work" could be superficial and skin-deep. Many "over-work" results from "over-drink" to build up social relationship. And, in the past, over-work lead to 1.5x/2x of normal pay for those ranked below assistant manager. Given the high cost of living in Japan, many engineers especially the junior simply need to over-work. So, when the junior engineers worked over office hours, their managers have to stay behind, hence a crowd effect.
At the end of the day, if over-work and super-efficiency can be achieved, Japanese semiconductor engineers will be super-productive. Are they? We should all have the answers without asking!
Japan has pretty much lost the huge Consumer Electronics market in the US & W. Europe to So. Korea, Taiwan and China. If unlike Europe, Japan does not want to let go of this low margin but high volume segment, then they have to compete with So. Korea in terms of NPI, with China on the basis of price. The article mentioned something about sticking to 20 year reliability even for DRAM for throwaway Consumer products ! Thats a no no ! The Japanese must re-examine all their assumptions and quickly change course accordingly. This means faster development cycles ( more science & simulation and fewer experiments ), more robotics ( even if it causes more unemployment among factory workers - at least there will be more money from exports to retrain them in something else ). Otherwise I am afraid it would be 1945 all over again. I say this as a well wisher who has managed semiconductor projects in Japan.
Chip's comments illustrate a couple points I've been trying to make. One is that the question is outside just engineering decisions, it involves economics and ITS LAWS. And these laws defy national boundaries.
Also his remarks display a certain desperate helplessness. All 'must' do this, that or the other thing. Says who? Nobody's in control. It's Smith's 'Invisible Hand' gone amok.
I'm a retired engineer.
At DEC I was a Principal Engineer responsible for designing a transaction based (mostly queued, out-of order, command) on their XMI Bus. The parent project was 'High-End' 3-D graphics workstation named 'Lynx'.
I was at least partially responsible for the Lynx project's demise. I questioned whether the low level metrics like triangle draw rate justified the product being a 'real time', photo realistic' machine.
I pointed out that drawing any photo realistic image would be so slow that it could never be considered real time.
Actually, I agree with chipmonk's ideas, including the "desperate helplessness" of sticking with a manufacturing model that no longer works, in Japan. (Or in the West, for that matter, so why should anyone over here be surprised?)
As to the "says who" aspect, it's not so much about any one person being "in control." It's more like, if a Japanese company wants to compete with China, Taiwan, and South Korea, on their terms, this is what they have to do.
Pretty obvious, actually. We've had many discussions already about what it would take to get manufacturing back to the US. Automation is certainly one key ingredient.
Do you think China, S Korea and others are immune from crisis? Certainly much of Europe, including Germany, is feeling a stagnation in world trade.
From a world perspective, Japan becoming very competitive is a problem. It would heat up the competition for markets.
As Chip says elsewhere automation puts workers out of work but says says selling of products produced at higher efficiency would '... at least ... be more money from exports to retrain them in something else'.
The problem is world trade is stagnating and even shrinking.
As far as who's in control, it's not a question of individuals. Even governments and central banks have been powerless to solve the problem. They're reduced to inflating bubbles.
As I've already opined on here before, China and South Korea will go through the same evolution as the rest of us. As the standard of living goes up, so do the wages. And then down goes the competitiveness for low-cost manufacturing. China is already exploring building plants in Cambodia and Vietnam. As reported by EE Times.
This is a continuation of the Industrial Revolution. Labor moved from the fields to the factories. Then from building hardware to building software. Then from selling physical stuff to selling IP.
No one is immune. Companies and entire countries have to keep reinventing themselves.
I look at global manufacturing, including labor (I consider engineers laborers) and their education, supply lines, raw materials, national boundaries, the economics and attendant politics as a big, sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly, coupled elements, etc as a big machine, a system.
Many believe that machine is stuttering, maybe there are bottlenecks, wrong balance of serial vs parallel, too tight coupling or too loose, not enough duplication of resources, maybe too much, misallocation, stalling of pipelines etc.
We should look at this as a system.
I don't disagree with the system view at all. It seems clear, though, that if countries are viewed as components of that system, their function has to be allowed to change over time.
It sounds to me like Japan Inc. is attempting to remain where it was in the 1970s and 1980s, wrt consumer electronics. Or at least, that's what the frequent articles on EE Times keep suggesting. And I keep responding that Europe and the US have been through the same shift that Japan perhaps is fighting, and even China and South Korea are not immune to this evolution.
At the bottom of it is, competitiveness for providing individual functions, in this global system, changes constantly. If you're competitve in manufacturing today, you will not necessarily remain competitive tomorrow, because your standard of living may have changed.
The US, and all of Western Europe. The reason is simple economics, really. If these western countries bring manufacturing back, it's because the manufacturing will mostly be done by robot machines. The next hurdle will be design, as those occupations migrate elsewhere too.
The hard part has always been the same, ever since the Industrial Revolution. In short, how do the displaced workers add value to society, once their previous occupations become extinct?
That's why you have to keep reinventing yourself, as a country but also as an individual engineer.
Bert, I believe that a big problem in US is the ridiculous compensation given to the top few people (mainly the CEO) in a company. Further, the finance people can so manipulated the economy (collapse in CY2009), ripped most of the rewards, mostly unpunished, yet the middle-class collapsed.
I recall the 10 years I was in England (1979-1989), not many young people want the career of EE because the jobs were typically not well rewarded and engineers had a low corporate status compared to those in management/accounting/business/law etc. Looking at how powerful banks and their allies in Washington are, what is the future for engineers? My crystal ball is muddy!
Understand. But if your key customers are Japanese CE companies who don't need turnkey solutions but instead demand more tweaks and customizations, you could have totally missed the overwhelming trend in the global market.
Most conceivable customers want turnkey solutions from suppliers. Why not? Just pay the materials but not the home-grown R&D fixed cost, and get the solutions (SW, HW, system, or whatever necessary).
The missing part, and this is critical, is: global thinking!
If the end-customer is selling globally, then the solutions must have the global needs (EMEA, Asia, Japan, USA) in mind. Because each specific geography has its own need, local customization is needed. Collapse of the Japanese semiconductor (actually, mainly digital & mixed-signal SOCs right now) industry is partly because of the failure of their OEM customers like Sony / Panasonic / NEC / Sharp / Sanyo / ... They also fared badly in the last 10 years.
If the Japanese semiconductor companies designed their products with the global needs in mind, had the right process to incorporate the market information from the qualified individuals (should be mostly local people, not expatriates) in all the geographies, and the right development engineering process which closely monitor schedule / resources / cost / requirements etc, they could quickly sell variants of products designed for the failed Sony FPTV to LG or TPV or TCL!
In my life, I saw multiple (i.e. not one) instances of bloated resources, excessive schedule delay, incompetent lead engineering, incompetent workwide marketing & sales because the unqualified and incompetent senior people at the Japan headquarters want to control everything! In my 16 years of dealing with one of the big Japan semiconductor companies, such kind of stupidity kept repeating itself.
From the report by Junko, these senior people still don't know why Japan semiconductor industry failed!
The most surprising thing in this article was the notion that Japanese engineers were gathered together and encouraged "to think and speak freely as individuals, not as corporate spokesmen," and that they did so. A generation ago, that might have been the most difficult part of the task.
Consciousness evolved as part of a mechanism to more effectively interact with the organisms environment. Consciousness becomes heightened when when it becomes apparent that not all is working as one would want or expect.
Language evolved as one means to help interact with one's environment in social situations.
It's not unique to Japan. Things are changing and there's more discussion.
I havent seen a single mention of the effect of culture, of the samurai, of Japanese xenophobia, of a single ethnicity unaffected by diversity. Can you imagine where the US would be today without immigrant engineers and scientists? After Sputnik catalyzed the huge 1960s production of homegrown engineers, leading to the success of our space program, homegrown production of engineers dried up. For a more than a generation, the best and brightest went into finance and Wall Street. Fundamental research at companies like ATT and IBM has virtually dried up. The flow of the best and brightest immigrant engineers has dried up, thanks to 9/11 paranoia, and host companies waking up, and stopping the brain drain. Meanwhile, Japan never had any influx of immigrant brainpower, merely an aging population immersed in the samurai culture of obedience and anti-individualism. And a P.S. to Les: DEC failed because of the hubris brought by momentary success, and Ken Olsen's ignorance of marketing.
Biggest problem for Japan is: It is an Island! Not because of geographics but because of thinking - which may be a result of it. Attempts to make business in the rest of the world often fail, because communication is so difficult and, japanese tend to think that the japanese way must work everywhere. Unfortunately it ONLY works in Japan. Local developed items like a Toyota car or a WII can be selled over the world but development with a customer abroad requires global thinking and understanding which is not in Japans focus.
I wonder if there are similar developments in other countries? How about Germany? I don't see a future for semiconductor manufacturing there anymore. Do they face similar issues than the engineers in Japan?
I also wonder about Germany although they are known as high tech manufacturing country but I think they are not so high tech on par with USA or Japan. Yes Germany are well known with their sophisticated looking cars but how advanced or significant are they in field of semiconductors, electronics, aerospace, or advanced materials to compare with USA or Japan because I cannot find any large involvement of this country (one example in civil aerospace, there are more Japanese involvement in latest aircraft than German can I find ) same as semi, materials etc. Their large exports not equal to its involvement .
Maybe you don`t understand the very big picture here. Yes the companies you have listed is well known but I want more significant or heavily involve companies especially in making important contribution. you listed companies like Siemens, Infinion, Zeiss, BASF is like American listed Dow Chemicals, Dupont, HP, TI etc or Japan listed Sony, Fujitsu, Advantest, Toray etc, or Korean with their infamous Samsung, Samsung SDI, LG etc, this all big companies or may I said typical mention companies. This not what I looking for. And I dare to said this German companies not on par on significant with the likes of Japan or USA. Look at Infinion selling their RF business to Intel, why. The demise of Qimonda, Wheres is German semiconductor business is heading, is German semiconductor business is in better shape than Japanese wheres news always follow the fate of its semi industry. How much contribution of German tech companies in the world semi arena. Same as materials is Japanese companies supply the most to semi business not Germany although they have Aixtron. Germany is now where to be mention much everyday is semi industry than Korea, Japan, USA or Taiwan. But in automotive we will heard everyday about their achievement, new products roll out etc. Even German solar manufacturing industry is in weak shape this day and not much talking occur about it. I can move on and on, but this enough. Thanks.
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