Issue



Innovation on the interface between disciplines


01/01/2010







Click to EnlargeLuc Van den hove,
IMEC, Leuven, Belgium

Today, the world is waking up from one of the largest economic crises it has ever experienced. A large fraction of the semiconductor industry is still struggling to get out of the severe downturn—one that is deeper than all others that it has been through. Though the ongoing crisis has not had a significant delaying effect on the semiconductor roadmap, it has changed the landscape of the semiconductor industry. It has also stimulated consolidation. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in some players that have entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, or even failed.

And not only small companies have been impacted; all companies face this challenging environment. Economical management through cost reduction and critical questioning of expenses is vital for everyone; companies, therefore, have delayed investments, defining priorities and increasing efficiency. The most obvious effect of the crisis is the steep decline of tool orders in the first half of 2009, which resulted in empty order books of some equipment companies and a crash of the equipment industry.

Companies that continue to invest in R&D during a period of economic downturn will thrive—they will be prepared for the future when the economy revives. It is often observed that during recessions, companies distinguish themselves from the others through innovation. But this crisis is so deep that many companies have also started saving on their R&D expenses, and are looking for alternatives to their expensive, proprietary R&D via collaboration in pre-competitive research. Outsourcing R&D in a cost-sharing way is an attractive solution for these innovative companies who want to prepare for the future. By sharing costs and the risks of pre-competitive research, they are guaranteed a competitive advantage in further product development.

The semiconductor roadmap is moving forward, and we are getting closer to the physical limits of scaling. In the future, innovation will be created on the interface between disciplines; i.e., between nanoelectronics and biology, nanoelectronics and mechanics, imaging, sensing and actuating, etc. Indeed, traditional players in the semiconductor industry, who used to focus on their scaling activities, are now widening their spectrum. They look for new opportunities in the beyond-CMOS domain.

The semiconductor industry is positioning itself on the plane of two complementary axes—the traditional scaling or More Moore axis, where new materials are explored to further push the roadmap, and the More than Moore axis, where semiconductor technologies are combined with other technologies to develop innovative applications. As a leading innovator, IMEC pioneers in research and development on the interface between More Moore and More than Moore. Combining expertise and technologies is rapidly becoming the way to go to differentiate with creative products. That's why IMEC leverages its knowledge built up in 25 years of nanoelectronics R&D into dedicated new strategic research domains, such as bioelectronics, photovoltaics, imaging, sensing, actuating, energy harvesting, power electronics, etc.

Financial indicators are currently rising, and companies are returning to profit. But the question is, how will 2010 look? Are the current positive figures sustainable, or are they only a temporary revival? There are hopeful signs for recovery, but the industry finds itself in a fragile situation. Moreover, experts predict that the crisis will probably not immediately come to a complete end in 2010.

Due to this uncertainty, many companies will be very cautious in spending and companies will invest carefully in new projects. Although 2010 will be a challenging year, I am convinced that it may be thriving for innovative companies that look for new markets and continue investing in R&D to prepare for the future.

Luc Van den hove is president and CEO of IMEC, Kapeldreef 75, 3001 Leuven, Belgium; ph.:+32 16 28 18 80; e-mail: katrien.marent@imec.be

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