At a time when the free flow of information in the world is greater than ever, the chip industry appears to be headed the other way.
Industry cooperation has always been important to the semiconductor industry. It has always been fascinating to me to attend an industry conference and hear an engineer provide detailed data about technical achievements and breakthroughs to a room full of people that includes some of their biggest competitors. As men and women of science, engineers are steeped in a tradition of openness and the knowledge that great achievements are built on the shoulders of other great achievements.
On the business side, as an industry, the semiconductor industry has always been pretty good about working together to solve common issues and work collectively for "the greater good." As my colleague (actually, technically my boss) recalled Wednesday, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) has at times been a very successful vehicle for advancing the cause of the semiconductor industry, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the U.S. semiconductor industry was duking it out with Japan.
As she stated, an important part of the SIA's power at that time and since has been the pooling of data from member companies, arming the industry with the information it needs to not only run efficiently, but also to persuade governments to adopt policies that support the semiconductor industry.
Alas, the spirit of cooperation may be crumbling. In the past two days, we have learned that both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. opted out of the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics program, which pools and reports data on monthly chip sales, and that the SIA is pulling the plug on its quarterly industry capacity report, SICAs, after Taiwanese companies Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., United Microelectronics Corp. and Nanya Technology Corp. withdrew last year.
In a sense, the idea of industry cooperation has always been a bit of an oxymoron. Intel may cooperate in a trade group with AMD, but at the same time you know at some level Intel would just as soon AMD be put out of business. Same thing for TSMC and UMC. So you can see where the idea of participating in a program that benefits your own firm but also—perhaps more so—your competitors is tricky.
But a rising tide lifts all boats. We hear now more than ever how complex technology and lean supply chains make industry cooperation more vital than ever. As others have already said in the pages of EE Times and elsewhere, the decisions by these firms to withdraw completely from these important programs are short sighted—cutting off the nose to spite the face. As one commenter on the EE Times Forum put it, these firms may change their tune when the decrease in information leads to more frequent supply chain hiccups that come back to bite them in the rear end.
There really has to be a better way. As IC Insights Inc. President Bill McClean suggested in an EE Times opinion piece Wednesday, the companies and the organizations that administer these programs should really sit down and try to work out a deal—a compromise that would result in the reports containing less precise (and thus less valuable) information, rather than none at all. The free flow of information in the world is greater than ever; for the semiconductor industry to buck the trend and go the other way would be to its detriment.