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Academia, IC vendors ally for R&D in Japan

Posted: 01 Jun 2001 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:japan? ic industry? design? kyushu? r&d?

A deep-rooted sense that Japan must recover from what is commonly called the "lost decade" of declining market share in the 1990s is taking new shape as a pair of academic-industry consortiums fire up in recent month. While one frames itself as a defensive measure to restore Japan's chip-engineering potential, the other may herald a new way of doing business by linking Japan's universities and its semiconductor industry.

Following an inaugural Semiconductor Technology Joint Forum in Kyushu, in southern Japan, most of the region's major universities, local governments and 12 semiconductor companies have agreed to form a regional information network between academia and business to better coordinate R&D.

"We have more than 30 percent of Japan's semiconductor production concentrated here, but not so much research and development and design. We would like to connect that research to business," said the initiative's progenitor, Toshio Tsurushima, emeritus professor at Kyushu University and president of the Kumamoto Technopolis Foundation.

While this grand alliance looks to reestablish Japan's semiconductor-engineering base through better training of future engineers, Kyoto University has just scored what it says is Japan's first comprehensive contractual partnership between a university and a major manufacturer. The university will join with Rohm Co. Ltd to develop a series of next-generation photonic crystal and photoelectronic devices for very fast-switching ICs, as well as silicon carbide-based semiconductor technologies.

Details of the Kyushu initiative remain scarce, but Tsurushima said the organization will start off meeting biannually or annually to share research information and may jell into a more sharply focused effort "in the very near future." High on the agenda will be curriculum improvements to include more VLSI design training in consultation with industry, he said. "Education and training is the first step, our first intention," Tsurushima said.

Industry hopes the alliance will help resolve a major disconnect between Japanese universities and manufacturers, NEC Corp. chairman Hajime Sasaki told EE Times. Sasaki said Japan has three electronics-related strengths: a very active digital consumer market capable of pumping revenue back to industry; a strong indigenous semiconductor equipment base; and a strong overall academic base. But universities are turning out graduates weak in architecture design and in targeted, value-added product development, he said, a dangerous problem at a time when successful products rely on securing more and more IPs, which itself requires complex design skills.

"We can manufacture chips, but we cannot design them, and we can no longer come out with the strongest product for the market," Sasaki said.

Japanese companies should have the courage, flexibility and resources to make key strategic decisions, Sasaki said, pointing to Texas Instruments' selling of its DRAM business to Micron and turning its corporate attention to DSP as an example. A key step will be to retrain Japan's engineers from the ground up, argued Sasaki, who has long called for better collaboration among the semiconductor industry, universities and government.

? Paul Kallender

EE Times

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