iNEMI’s Place in the World Print E-mail
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Written by Mike Buetow   
Monday, 30 June 2008 19:00
Caveat Lector In the US we are primed to a seeming dearth of industry research and development, so let’s not let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good moan.

Let’s forget, for the moment, the efforts of SEMATech, justly recognized for resuscitating the American semiconductor industry after years of market share losses to Japan – and, after 20 years, still going strong. Or, closer to PCBs, let’s ignore the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, which conducts a range of R&D, testing and evaluations for military hardware and subsystems, and which has opened its doors to various industry research projects. And there’s the AREA Consortium organized under the auspices of Universal Instruments, where some 30 or so electronics assembly companies are tackling everything from the assembly and reliability of advanced packages like SiP, PoP and QFNs, to pad finishes to Pb-free reliability (yeah, we’re still working on that).

Forget all that. Let’s instead talk of the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative. This year, iNEMI launched no fewer four heavy-duty projects: Pb-free alloy alternatives, Pb-free early failure, boundary scan adoption and solder paste deposition. This is in addition to the 15 or so other projects and collaborative efforts already underway.

Now, as one colleague pointed out, what iNEMI actually does is more “D” than “R.” As I’m usually the one cast in the role of Semantics Police, I can only respond, Fair enough. But allow me to digress for a few hundred words.

Remember the old saying that IBM has more technology collecting dust in its basement than even what’s commercially available today? It has some merit. One need only look at some of the suits winding their way through the courts to grasp the full potential.

Consider, for example, the February 2007 decision whereby a federal jury ruled that Microsoft’s Windows Media Player format infringed old Lucent patents related to the MP3 digital-audio standard. After acquiring Lucent, Alcatel went rooting through all those dust-covered patents, and they uncovered at least one gem, so convincing a jury, it awarded the telecom titan a stunning $1.52 billion in damages.

That judgment was later reversed on appeal, and, last month, another federal jury found in favor of Microsoft, putting the matter to rest (for now). But Alcatel-Lucent (how much longer are they sticking with that name?) isn’t through. In March another federal jury awarded the company some $368 million after finding Microsoft infringed on patents for touch-screen form entry and use of a computer stylus, and the company is arguing cases for speech technology, video coding and user interface, too.

For those who feel R&D spending just ain’t what it used to be, a few judgments like that are sure to fund future work, and amply.

In the MP3 case, what helped save Bill Gates’ 401(k) plan was a deal Microsoft struck with The Fraunhofer Institute, the German research organization, which helped develop the MP3 format and later licensed the technology (for $16 million) to the software giant, among others.

This nifty out suggests all sorts of possibilities, not the least of which is that 1) organizations involved in technology transfer can be, at a minimum, self-sustaining and occasionally even profitable, and 2) those who contribute to research consortia might find it paying off down the road, not just in near-term solutions, but also as a hedge against latent patent disputes.

There are few true dedicated research consortia for electronics today, and, as usual, much of the burden continues to be borne by OEMs (and suppliers). But I’ve been hearing the “there’s no R&D in US” line since I entered this industry in 1991. I didn’t buy it then, and I’m not buying it now.

Which brings me back to iNEMI. The consortium’s stated ambition is nothing less than to ensure leadership of the global electronics manufacturing supply chain. That’s a big hairy goal, but what it boils down to sounds awfully close to SEMTATech's (which also exists to speed technology commercialization). It might not garner the mainstream fanfare, but the results iNEMI is returning are hardly trivial. Providing potential cover for members in questionable litigation attempts isn’t on its mission statement, but it’s no wet blanket, either.



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