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With relief, NEC exec assesses electronics realm

Posted: 30 Jun 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:nec? electronics? mobile? cellphone? wireless?

Sasaki: The relation between a culture and the products and services it likes is very interesting.

Hajime Sasaki's greeting gives the impression of good-humored interest in what you might have to say. His manner somehow softens the traditional understated elegance of Japanese executive tailoring from impeccable to something more like dapper. And it renders the intensity with which he receives questions almost a compliment--as if in the middle of a 16-hour course of meetings the chairman of the board of NEC Corp. were delighted to find himself speaking with you in particular.

Some of that good humor may be from relief. For the first time in a while, Sasaki is optimistic about the near-term prospects of his industry.

"I think Japanese companies are happy right now," Sasaki said. "We're seeing stronger customers in Japan, particularly in the consumer electronics and automotive sectors."

In fact, Sasaki is broadly optimistic for the demand side of the industry. "Over the three- to five-year time frame, I see strong growth for the industry," he said citing two major trends. "First, we are seeing strong interest in new consumer products, such as DVD recorders, digital cameras and flat-panel televisions," he said. "These new products are creating new demand, particularly in Japan."

"Second, we are seeing strong acceptance of mobile communications, especially in China. Mainland, of course, is a huge place. But we see an increasing penetration of mobile-phone devices there," Sasaki added.

Indeed, he said, cellphones "are creating a new culture in Asia, the way people use short message service (SMS) and the way they are beginning to use cameras in the handsets."

Sasaki views the uptake of new technology as an expression of local manners and mores. "The relation between a culture and the products and services it likes is very interesting. Think of SMS, for instance. In much of Asia it is used extensively. But I think not so much in the U.S. where people prefer to send each other e-mail on their PCs. Such differences make it hard to be sure just how an entirely new capability, such as DVD recording, will be received."

Sasaki suggested that as electronic devices become more personal--more an expression of an individual's participation in his culture--global markets will become increasingly fragmented and local. And this must lead to not just local manufacturing--primarily a regulatory and logistical issue--but to local design.

"There has been strong demand in Europe for cellular handsets with camera capability, for instance," Sasaki said. "But it is not uniform. The demand is in Italy and France, not so much in northern Europe. In fact, we have a local design center in Italy to create the handset enclosures for the Italian market. There is a similar situation in China, where there are specific handsets dedicated to the Chinese market."

Semiconductors are key

Sasaki described a vision of NEC that is globally deployed to serve what is rapidly becoming a fragmented group of specific local markets. The outward appearance of the product might best be determined in the local market, he suggested. User interface design is less country-specific, except of course in language. But the electronic content of the products should remain the province of a centralized R&D and manufacturing facility, the chairman believes.

"Semiconductors are the key. We will keep them under the umbrella of NEC Corp.," he said.

Sasaki emphasized NEC's commitment to continue process development and semiconductor manufacturing. To some extent, he said, the decision was a matter of scale. If a company is sufficiently large, and can drive its semiconductor products across a broad range of markets globally, it makes sense to stay in the chip-manufacturing business. But below that critical size, it may not be feasible. Sasaki pointed to the difference in strategy between NEC on one hand and Mitsubishi and Hitachi on the other. The latter two companies combined their semiconductor operations recently.

The chairman cited a series of expensive challenges that faced NEC as process development continued. "Through the 65nm node I believe we can stay with conventional CMOS. There will be difficult modifications, much like the moves to low-k interconnect dielectrics and copper were in the past. But in the larger view these are relatively minor," Sasaki said.

Fabrication strategy

"In the next step, to 50nm, we may need to move to a new FET structure, with new materials. This node appears to require significant investment, especially in lithography."

There is a larger issue on Sasaki's mind, however, when it comes to fabrication strategy.

"Today there's much discussion within NEC about how we can move from giant semiconductor fabs to smaller ones," Sasaki said. "The huge fabs we build today will in the future require enormous investment, and consequently will require significant markets to pay for them. We must learn how to reduce the scale of a semiconductor fab to meet the scale of the market it serves, and to reduce the initial investment. At this time, there is no answer to this question--but a national research program in Japan, called Halca, is working to realize a small-scale wafer fab. It will require entirely new concepts in equipment design."

Besides the flexibility to manufacture relatively small numbers of wafers for a given project, Sasaki said that IC architects needed to find ways to increase the flexibility of a given chip. "Perhaps configurable logic may be a possible solution," he said. "We have seen a couple of activities in this direction."

- Ron Wilson

EE Times

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