Sunday, June 29, 2008

10-point program for Karnataka semicon policy

A very interesting question was recently thrown at me: what sort of semiconductor policy should Karnataka adopt as a state! I shall attempt to highlight some of the activities the Karnataka government can look at implementing in the semicon/EMS space.

Let us first go back to last September, when the Indian government issued fab guidelines. Besides wafer IC and solar/PV fabs, the Indian government is seeking investments in ecosystem units for LCDs, OLEDs, PDPs, photovoltaics, solar cells, storage devices, advanced micro and nanotech products, etc.

The 'ecosystem units' have been clearly defined as units, other than a fab unit, for manufacture of semiconductors, displays, including LCDs, OLEDs, PDPs, any other emerging displays; storage devices; solar cells; photovoltaics; other advanced micro and nanotechnology products; and assembly and test of all the above products.

For starters, the Karnataka state needs to have a long-term semiconductor policy in place, running 20-25 years or so. This cannot be a short-term plan! It would be prudent to have the top Indian leaders from Indian firms and MNCs, e.g., Ittiam, MindTree, Synopsys, Cadence, TI, Analog Devices, as well as the Indian Institute of Science and some other leading technology institutes, be the part of a core state semiconductor policy team to oversee the implementations. Future state governments would only need to update the status and keep it rolling forward.

Incentives need to be built in as well, including more tax holidays, etc. Whether it needs to be 25-30 percent or higher, is to be debated. Next, the focus of a semicon policy should be aimed at solving some particular local problem, which can go on to solve a much bigger national problem.

All of this should be done with, keeping in view to improving the infrastructure in the state, such as roads, water, electricity, etc. Foreign investors would shy away if infrastructure issues were not tackled first.

In this context, the Karnataka government should first look at having some solar/PV fabs in the state, as well as those in the nanotech space. Next, it would be prudent to pursue a policy of attracting companies in the verification and testing domains. Rather, have companies in the ATMP space, a pointer, which has been coming up in most of the discussions.

As an example, last year, an Israeli company -- Nova Measuring Instruments -- was keen on entering India. Nova develops, produces, and markets advanced monitoring, measurement and process control systems for the semiconductor manufacturing industry. It should be pursued to start assembly and testing of products in the state.

Wafer IC fabs are going to be a tough act to follow. Unless a company can get the requisite funding for a 300mm fab, it is not advisable to follow that path. However, there is room for developing 200mm fabs, or even 150mm and 180mm fabs. These can be used to develop indigenous and simple applications. If such fabs are developed, those companies offering fab-related services can be attracted as well.

The Indian semicon policy statement speaks about having ecosystem units. It would be advisable to attract smaller companies and look at setting up manufacturing units. As an example, Synopsys's Subhash Bal had once pointed out how RFID can be used in a host of applications. That's not all. Why not pursue companies in the OLEDs/LEDs and PDPs spaces as well, besides those manufacturing LCDs, even if smaller-sized.

Finally, consider attracting and promoting companies in the fabless space, as it looks to be the way ahead for the semiconductor industry.

Here is a 10-point program for the Karnataka government to consider as a likely semiconductor policy.

1. A long-term semiconductor policy running 20-25 years or so.
2. Core team of top Indian leaders from Indian firms and MNCs, as well as technology institutes in Karnataka to oversee policy implementation.
3. Incentives such as government support, including stake in investments, and tax holidays.
4. Strong infrastructure availability and management.
5. Focus on having solar/PV fabs in the state.
6. Consider having 150/180/200mm fabs that tackle local problems via indigenous applications.
7. Develop companies in the assembly testing, verification and packaging (ATMP) space.
8. Attract companies in fields such as RFID, to address local problems and develop local applications.
9. Pursue companies in the PDP, OLED/LED space to set up manufacturing units.
10. Promote and set up more fabless units.

There should be some steps to create specific zones for setting up such units -- for fabs, fabless, ATMP, manufacturing, etc., all spread equally across the state.

On a personal note, I would be keen and willing to work with the Indian/Karnataka government, or the concerned parties, in formulating such a policy, should I am invited. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing India, and Karnataka, shining in the semiconductor space.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Has the Indian silicon wafer fab story gone astray?

The recent news of the Hyderabad Fab City giants -- SemIndia Fab Pvt Ltd and Nano-Tech Silicon India Pvt Ltd -- being served notice by the local state government and to explain the reasons for their delay in setting up the Fab City in Shamshabad on the outskirts of Hyderabad, does not come as a surprise at all!

Setting up of a silicon wafer fab takes up a lot of time and money, and I am not sure how this bit is perceived by many. Also, the rate of return is not exactly immediate! Maybe, it is time for everyone to realize that semiconductor is a very different industry from any other, and there is a need to understand how it really functions! Besides, one needs to keep an eye on the global semiconductor industry and associate movements there with what kind of value would a fab in India bring to the world.

This May, I'd done a reality check on where the global semiconductor is placed. Several folks have contacted me since, pointing out my accuracy. While it is good to be spot on with the assessment of the global (and Indian) semiconductor industry, the assessments should serve as a warning for the global (and Indian) semiconductor industry -- that it is not going to be an easy ride ahead!

On the same note, I had earlier questioned whether this was the right timing for setting up fabs in India. Perhaps, there is a need to examine whether we started on the fab path a bit too late! If we are found to be wrong or hasty in our assessment, let us feel no anguish in accepting that! This is not the first time such a thing will happen in the semiconductor industry, nor will it be the last. Having said that, if a wafer fab or two do start functioning in India later in 2009 or beyond, that would be exemplary!

Let us hope that the Indian silicon wafer fab story does not go astray for the overall benefit of the Indian semiconductor industry. There is a need on part of the Indian semicon planners to integrate clear vision with careful planning.

Yes, several solar fabs are coming up globally, and investments in solar/PV are rising as well in India, but that was along expected lines.

It was also pointed out earlier that investments in photovoltaics (PV) had somewhat eased the pressure on capital equipment makers and spend. In fact, 2007 is now well documented as the year when the PV industry emerged as a key opportunity for the subsystems suppliers and provided a timely boost in sales for those actively addressing this market.

Perhaps, here lies an opportunity for India, and I'm repeating this to the extent of sounding boring!

Further, even though it has been quite a while since the Indian semicon policy was announced, some feel that India should continue to focus on design services and embedded -- its well known strengths, rather than go after something as mature as wafer fabs. We don't have to 'force ourselves to believe' that we are good at product development? We are not!

Yes, like most things, it can change, but that would need great effort on part of all industry stakeholders. The question is: are we ready to bring about that change?