TOKYO--As ailing Japanese semiconductor manufacturers begin finally to awaken to a reality that going fab-lite is their best hope for survival, one question looms large: Who on earth would want to buy an old fab at a Japanese rummage sale?
The conventional wisdom says nobody.
Malcolm Penn, chairman & CEO at Future Horizons, flatly said that those Japanese fabs “are all in legacy nodes,” and buying any of those fabs “would be a management and logistic nightmare.”
On the other hand, when you bet on an opportunity that appeals to nobody else, the potential jackpot is all that much bigger.
The latest chatter on the Tokyo street reveals that at least one foreign company is bidding for a fab that a Japanese chip company is trying to dump.
Most industry insiders, however, can’t fathom why any company would be bold--or foolish--enough to make such a move.
Penn said, “If they’re not good enough anymore to be useful to R&D, why should I buy them? Better from a pure textbook market economic point of view to take them off line and raze them.”
But here’s the thing: It costs a lot to close a fab, with expenses covering everything from paying off employees to gutting the site. In this light, the idea of letting a foreign chip company buy the white elephant at a discount and having them run it isn’t so far-fetched. From the viewpoint of the Japanese chip company, inviting a foreign company in, to use the fab for its products while meeting the demands of existing customers, is a better outcome than shutting the whole thing down at two or three times the loss.
The pricing of old fabs differs significantly depending on the size of the fab, type of technology, products produced, said Joanne Itow, managing director at Semico Research.
But just for the sake of argument, what if it could cost as much as $300 million to shut down a fab? In that case, why not sell for $200 million--or even $100 million?
Itow is an analyst who sees potential opportunity in the acquisition of old fabs in Japan. Indeed, there is a precedent. She said, “One example is Tower’s purchase of a fab located in Japan from Micron.” While Itow doesn’t believe that Tier 1 foundries are interested in operating a fab in Japan, she pointed out that there are several pure-play foundries focused on MEMS, power management, and other products. They could become buyers.
Even if it were not an outright purchase of the whole fab, Itow thinks there could be some interest from Tier 1 foundries to purchase equipment already installed in the Japanese fabs. Pointing out GlobalFoundries’ recent purchase of equipment from the ProMOS Taiwan fab, she believes this could be done. Further, “As Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. expands its CIS, HV and eFlash capacity, they could be in the market for used equipment.”
The examples given by Itow above are mostly about potential interest in old Japanese fabs among pure-play foundries. How about fabless chip companies in the United States? Any takers?
Seems to me once "good enough" (and cheap) replaced "best" as the key metric, the Japanese semiconductor industry was sunk. They simply cant move fast enough to change an entire culture. If automobiles had a Moore's Law moving every 18 months, the Japanese auto industry would also be on its last legs. Tech is unforgiving: have a hiccup, miss a cycle, and you are dead. Autos do not: GM and Chrysler survived near-death experiences, and Toyota overcame the accelerator debacle. No tech company could have done that. Only reason to buy a Japanese fab is to buy a customer you couldnt get any other way.
People will pay less than 10% of original equipment price and ship it out to China and outsource the manufacturing at less cost. Knowledge/know-hows of product design can stay in Japan but does not make sense to have these old machines sitting there doing nothing. Also for MEMS, you need more than these old machines to make things you want to make. It 's additional CAPEX Japan does not want to invest for no ROI.
any1, you are absolutely correct, I think, by saying that many Japanese companies delayed too long in "restructuring" their semi operations. Renesas is no longer the owner of its own company and it does not control its own destitny.
Fujitsu, keen on getting rid of its semi division, isn't interested in proposing anything new to reverse the direction either.
Herd mentality is exactly where Japanese companies are in now.
It is, however, an opportunity for chip companies in other countries.
Junko, what is your opinion on this trend? Conventional wisdom says dump all of your old fabs. But conventional wisdom is often wrong. It seems that many Japanese companies delayed too long in "restructuring" their semiconductor operations. But now there seems to be a mad dash to exit. Sort of a herd mentality that says if company X is selling then we need to sell as well before it's too late. But it's been too late for some time now for conventional strategies. Throw out the accountants and put some engineers in charge. It's time to try a contrarian strategy. Don't bet the whole company on it, just part of it.
It does seem odd that foreign companies are interested in the fabs but someone in Japan is not.
I agree that the Japanese companies have to expand their focus a bit and try to wring as much (second-tier) value out of these facilities as they can.
I am assuming that this lack of effort on the part of Japanese companies is not a technological problem so it may be a failing of the capital markets in Japan. Very strange.
I agree, this article is correct in that MEMS, discrete power, and many other devices could be manufactured in these legacy fabs. But instead of selling them to other companies already in these businesses, why not develop in house capabilites and products in these areas instead of selling all of these fabs at way below replacement cost? They should take the millions that they would have to write off as losses and invest that money in themselves while they still can. They could save at least some of these fabs. Whatever happened to Japanese companies taking the longer view towards their futures? This trait was one of the strengths that made them great.
The Nishiwaki fab at one point was the benchmark fab for the TI DRAM business. They consistently had the best yields of all of TI's fabs. That was around 2005. Nishiwaki is a country town with poor access by road and train. The train into town chugs along with a diesel engine (most trains in Japan are electric powered).
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