Further evidence of the European Commission's interest in re-invigorating microelectronics on the European continent and microelectronics manufacturing in particular has come from Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner responsible for the digital agenda.
Kroes, one of the senior bureaucrats within the Commission, used the opportunity of a keynote speech presented to the IMEC Technology Forum, held in Brussels last month, to ask whether Europe should consider the creation of an Airbus of chips.
Readers may remember that Malcolm Penn of Future Horizons Ltd. was one of the co-authors of a report recently presented to the European Commission that discussed various requirements for, and ways towards, hosting manufacturing on 450-mm diameter wafers. However, while interest is high in Brussels the home of the European Commission because of its potential job- and wealth-creation benefits, the idea seems to be less urgent for a number of European chip companies that are, of course, driven by nearer-term financial considerations.
Meanwhile, data from World Semiconductor Trade Statistics and elsewhere has shown that the European manufacture of chips, and market for chips, have both been in decline for a number of years.
Kroes raised the level of rhetoric by asking whether Europe wants to be a global player or not, and whether it would not be better to opt for European consolidation and cooperation "on our own terms" before consolidation is forced upon European companies for which one might read: "forces them out of existence."
In the past the European discussion has mainly been about collaborative R&D, billions of euros of which is already supported by the Commission. Now Kroes has cited the more interventionist example of Airbus SAS, one of the great European projects and one that has achieved considerable success.
Airbus is a subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company NV (EADS), which was deliberately assembled from national defense and aerospace companies across Europe to provide strategic defensive independence at a continental level. It was also set up to produce a rival to Boeing at a commercial level, which it has done with some success. Airbus now produces about half the world's jet airliners.
I don't know if we can use arguments from both sides of the fense.
German cars are finished products. And they are not built by a trans-Euro conglom. So the comparison is tenuous at best. German cars sell because they can demand a premium price. It's an image thing, much like Gucci handbags are for women. Careful engineering, priced quite high compared with the competition, will sell.
On the other hand, chip manufacturing MAY have become commoditized. Companies won't use high priced chips in their products just because it adds a certain cachet. It doesn't. Chips have to compete on price and performance only.
So I'm not buying that all this needs is government action. Government action can also spend a lot of taxpayers' money without much success.
Bert22306, the world's second largest vehicle manufacturer is the Volkswagen Group, which owns Skoda and Seat among other Pan-European brands, with production sites all over Europe and the world. This answers your point about German car firms not being trans-Euro conglom.
Moreover, cars such as Skoda and Seat can hardly be described as high-end cars with premium prices. I reiterate what I said above, Germany proved that it is possible to compete with the Far East with a combination of labour reforms (e.g. wage restraints), strategic and stable management (e.g. employee co-determination), diversification of risk (e.g. pan-European acquisitions and worldwide manufacturing), and constant improvements/innovation (e.g. international R&D centres).
The exact same principles could equally apply to the semiconductor industry.
Sorry, but Skoda and Seat build cars under license. It's not an Airbus-like conglom. Seat used to build Fiat copies, just like Lada did in Russia. Then they went to VW some years ago. I don't have the figures, but I'll bet a lot of money that Seat lost a big chunk of their market share to the Japanese manufacturers.
I'm not disputing the generalities about management and labor cost retraints. I'm simply saying, they are not always enough. Chips are not finished end products that consumers focus on. A better comparison might be, who builds the generators, the window mechanisms, or the transmissions, the OEM tires, for these cars? Do some of those components not get outsourced? (They do.)
Both Sokda and Seat are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Volkswagen Group. The VW group also owns Bentley in Britain, Bugatti in France, and Scania in Sweden. It is truly a Pan-European company now with mixture of mid-range and high-end offering.
Re. your second paragraph, I do not see the point you are trying to make about finished products vs. unfinished ones. Yes, European car firms outsource "some" steps/parts of the value chain but a lot of it is done in Europe. Anyway, analogies do not have to be perfect to be useful :-)
Europe cannot afford to skip chip fabrication, and if the US is managing to compete with the Far East, Europe certainly can. The pertinent point is economies of scale. The US is great at capitalising on it, Europe has not always done so because its edifice is still work in progress. The time has come to accelerate European economic integration in my opinion.
I agree with both of you -- in part.
I agree Europe can't afford to get out of the chip business. I am not sure it makes PERFECT sense.
And I agree you can waste a lot of taxpayers' money trying to beat the tidal forces of the free-market system.
Airbus was a success so why not try something. And collaborative R&D at Crolles without full corporate integration worked -- for a while -- before company interest in semiconductor manufacture slipped down the agenda and diverged.
But if the likes of ST and Infineon, with their public shareholders, don't want to be conglomerated, what's to be done?
"But if the likes of ST and Infineon, with their public shareholders, don't want to be conglomerated, what's to be done? "
That is why I said Eurocrats should "facilitate" not necessarily drive European chip integration. The lever to do this is a mixture of carrots and sticks e.g. direct financial incentives for integrated efforts e.g. in new technology nodes, and financial disincentives for direct competition in certain segments e.g. DRAM.
An airbus of chips? Late for delivery, plagued by subcontractor problems, not always tested adequately, and delayed by parts shortages, in addition to being single sourced? I suppose that if the larger substrate could be made much larger, that there may possibly be some benefit if the yield wound up being adequate. But the cost of a bad substrate would be MUCH larger, it appears.
"We have the academic and innovative capacity to take part, but we seem to lack the will to invest in the manufacturing part" - this is called the European paradox, a phenomenon that eurocrats have tried to believe for ten years but that has been identified as largely a myth in more recent studies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_paradox).
The facts are that the combined public and private R&D investments in Europe are much lower than in the US, that the market is still very fragmented in national countries and taking risks is not rewarded.
A key difference with the Airbus case is that the aerospace sector was and is much more dependent on the government and so much more amenable to large-scale 'forced' consolidation by these governments - which was probably a very good idea, as Airbus shows.
Ms. Kroes usually knows what she's talking about, and a European chip technology company might make sense, but a central problem remains: most companies creating fundamentally new markets over the past decades are not European ones (Apple, Google, Microsoft,...) and that's not likely to change any time soon.
Before they do so they better consider the arrogance of the systems engineers at Airbus. their attitude is that they know how to handle emergency situations better than the pilot, therefore when an unusual situation comes up the autopilot kicks in regardless of whether the flight crew wants it to or not.
This is was brought Air France 447 in 2009. The pilot could not control the aircraft because the autopilot kept kicking in and taking control based on faulty readings from the pitot tubes (airspeed indicators), which had iced up. Whenever the cockpit crew turned the auto pilot off and tried to correct the aircraft's flight, the flight computer assumed that they were incompetent and therefore re-asserted control of the aircraft from them. With the pitot tubes iced up, the computers thought the plane was flying too slow so it put the aircraft into a dive to pick up speed. The pilot would turn the autopilot off, pull the plane back up, only to have the damned thing re-assert itself and put the plane into a dive again. Without a master override, he couldn't keep the plane from destroying itself. Eventually it crashed into the ocean. This is also the reason the Airbus 380 which lost an engine to a fire almost crashed; the autopilot assumed the situation was different and kept taking control from the pilot when it felt the pilot was acting foolishly.
Boeing aircraft don't do this.
Here is an interesting parallel. In UK after WWII there were four private regional railways all struggling to make any money after years of neglect and unable to face the cost of upgrading to diesel/electric operation.
On the first sniff of possible government compensation the companies were eager to take the money and be nationalized out of existence.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for todays commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.