Semiconductors and Electronics

I was fortunate enough to work on the “silicon” part of Silicon Valley through some truly exciting transitions.

My first serious engagement in this space was as consultant working on aspects of the Intel-AMD lawsuit — which allowed me to build solid insights into the microprocessor industry, including demand drivers, market trend, competitive positioning, pricing strategies, and cost functions.

This hands-on involvement in such a pivotal point of the computing industry was one of the factors which led me to move from consulting into the semiconductor space a few years later. I joined Applied Materials at a critical juncture, and as head of corporate strategic planning had an excellent vantage point on some of the most important events in the electronics and semiconductor industry.

At that point in time, Applied had already become the leading provider of manufacturing solutions to chip factories — these amazing feats of technology and operations, which crank out huge volumes of tiny circuits at very low  costs, while expanding chip performance every few years (what is often referred to as “Moore’s Law” — an oft-misunderstood observation which I was to analyze in great detail in the coming years). The equipment and services which Applied provided to semiconductor factories all over the world would ultimately enable many of the technical wonders which today we take for granted — PCs and tablets with incredible capabilities, communication bandwidth to enable rapid internet access, mobile chips to move us to ever-smarter phones, memory chips and devices which allow us to carry with us all our videos and photos, great gaming platforms, etc.

But when I joined the industry back in the mid-1990’s, this was far from obvious. As a supplier of core technology solutions to the growing electronics industry, Applied had to build its own capacity very rapidly — and quickly ramp it down at the first sign of a cyclical downturn (which show up every few years, and could have easily cut Applied’s business volume in half). All the while, the Company had to maintain its strategic focus and technical vision, investing extensively in the right innovations, which should be ready for the market every few years (per the aforementioned Moore’s Law).

Applied was able to strengthen and extend its leadership by enabling some of the most important technological transitions in the semiconductor space — and Applied’s Corporate Strategy group worked hard to prepare and align the organization to win in each of these transitions:

  • Shifting chip production from silicon wafers measuring six and eight inch in diameter to 300mm wafers
  • Enabling  complex techniques to link the chip’s transistors — initially by deploying multi-layer architectures and subsequently by incorporating new conducting and dielectric materials
  • Providing integration production solutions (known as “modules”), which connect multiple machines through process technology know-how, measurement, feedback loops, and software
  • Integrating the entire factory through sophisticated fab control software
  • Expanding add-on service offerings, to allow factories to ramp more rapidly and operate more efficiently and consistently

At the same time, Applied was strategically expanding into new areas which could leverage our core competencies. As a matter of fact, I was initially hired into Applied, based on core competency work I had done as a consultant, per  the direction of the Company’s visionary Chairman and CEO, Jim Morgan. I engaged with some of the world’s leading technology companies at the time to learn from their experience in “capabilities-based expansion;” I leveraged the findings to work with Jim, President Dan Maydan and the rest of the management team to properly identify the Company’s competencies; and later used them to lay out a roadmap for expansion into new areas.

I took an active role in planning and executing M&A work related to extending Applied’s into new markets — including a joint venture to supply the flat-panel-display industry, a series of acquisitions to enter the factory metrology segment, multiple acquisitions in the fab software and services space, several focused technology acquisitions, and an extensive effort to position Applied as a leader in the clean energy space. I worked closely with Applied’s leadership — including the Board of Directors and CEO Mike Splinter — to prioritize investments and free up resources to focus on the new growth areas.

During my tenure at Applied’s Corporate Strategy and Development group, The Company solidified its global industry leadership, introduced over 50 new major products, and nearly doubled market share — growing its run rate from $1B to $10B. Just as important, Applied has been able to transform its customers’ factories through novel process, automation, and service solutions.

Following this exciting period, in 2006 I moved to Applied’s central engineering group as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Marketing Officer. This group — chartered with developing common hardware and software platforms — is key  to the Company’s innovation and productivity. In my role I helped to to refocus the roadmap and brand message for key engineering platforms,  enabling improved common standards.

But I quickly found myself in the midst of a major cross-industry effort. Some semiconductor manufacturers were beginning to discuss the idea of starting to produce chips  on much larger silicon substrates, measuring 450mm in diameter, more than double the size of the largest substrates in volume production. Common wisdom held that shifting to larger wafer would yield significant productivity gains.

With guidance from Mike Splinter (who had been an active driver of the earlier 300mm transition, when he was a key Applied customer), and building on my insights from previous factory transitions, I launched a serious study of the benefits and limitations of such a shift. Through engagement with Applied’s key customers and industry players, and some serious modeling and analysis, we determined that such a move would be premature at best; instead, my research indicated that the industry should focus on productivity gains within the existing equipment set — a vision which we called “300mm Prime.”

In the following years I worked hard to broadly share our fact-based perspective and build alignment across the industry around a vision for boosting innovation and productivity without increasing investment. I co-led several industry trade groups (see for example here) and emerged as a key thought leader and spokesperson for the semiconductor equipment industry in the areas of economics, productivity, and technological change, including the economics of RD&E investment.

Below I include links to some of my articles, publications, public appearances, and media quotes which address the challenges of fab productivity, and especially 450mm production. As of mid-2012, there are no 450mm fabs in existence — and that’s a good thing! The semiconductor industry has been able to focus its shrinking R&D budget on tackling the huge technological challenges of moving forward on the industry’s aggressive roadmap — which is key to many of the innovations around us.

Today, chips are roughly a thousand times more capable than they were when I joined the semiconductor industry. No other technology has ever advanced so rapidly — and no other industry has ever faced the investment and performance challenges driven by such rapid pace of technology. It’s been a privilege  to be right in the middle of this phenomenal journey!

Fab Productivity — My Perspective

Articles and Publications:

Speeches and Presentations:

Media Quotes and References: