San Francisco -- Intermolecular Inc. and Semiconductor Research Corp. are expected to roll new R&D initiatives at this week's Semicon West show here, with Intermolecular reporting on a memory R&D pilot line and SRC describing emerging programs in analog, energy, medical and multicore. The announcements come amid continued debate on whether semiconductor R&D is an endangered species or is successfully evolving to adapt to changing realities.
The IC industry still pours billions of dollars annually into R&D. But in recent years, as costs have skyrockted, chip makers have been outsourcing more of their R&D requirements--with implications for intellectual-property control--to consortia, silicon foundries and third-party vendors. Some observers fear the trends portend a distant scenario in which the vast majority of chip makers cease R&D, relegating the once-mighty industry to a service sector populated by branding houses.
Meanwhile, some chip makers that have outsourced their R&D are reportedly dissatisfied with the payback. And some critics are questioning whether emerging R&D collaboration models are workable.
SRC (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) is among the believers in the collaborative model. Founded in 1982, the consortium is spearheading several R&D initiatives. One is the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), which has a 15-year goal of demonstrating novel devices with critical dimensions below 10 nanometers.
SRC is also expanding its efforts in "applications research." For example, it has quietly signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Science Foundation to investigate multicore processors.
Further, SRC is setting up an Analog Design Center, which will explore analog and mixed-signal technologies across "a broad spectrum of applications," said president and CEO Larry Sumney. And a program still on the drawing board, the Topical Research Collaboration, will initially address energy and medical research through two separate projects.
Intermolecular (San Jose, Calif.), too, is expanding its charter. Last year, it made a splash by rolling out the High-Productivity Combinatorial platform, which provides several process steps in various cluster tools. HPC is said to facilitate R&D of IC materials, processes and device structures. The company can sell the cluster tools to chip makers for R&D purposes. It also has set up an R&D line within its own facilities.
Now, Intermolecular has set up an R&D pilot line for use in developing a range of emerging memory technologies, such as phase-change memory and resistive RAM. The company is also mulling plans to develop similar technologies in the 3-D chip and solar markets, said CEO David Lazovsky.
Business is booming at Intermolecular, which logged $55 million in bookings in 2007. One of its customers conducts no R&D in-house, having designated Intermolecular as its R&D arm. Companies like Intermolecular have "changed the landscape," Lazovsky said.