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The sword points to 2nm chips, and Japan revisits the “old dream” of a semiconductor power after the fall

In 2021, the Japanese semiconductor industry will have a lot to gain.

According to statistics released by the Semiconductor Manufacturing Equipment Association of Japan (SEAJ), sales of chip equipment in Japan in October 2021 (3-month moving average) surged 50% (49.1%) to 271.904 billion yen compared with the same month last year. , the 10th consecutive month of growth, and the 8th consecutive month of double-digit growth.

In this favorable environment, the news of TSMC’s construction of a factory in Japan once again triggered the outside world’s imagination about the Japanese semiconductor industry.

In the context of a global chip shortage and countries competing for the technological commanding heights of the chip industry, TSMC has almost become the most popular “sweet pastry” in 2021, and it unexpectedly chose to build a factory in Japan, which undoubtedly caused the decline of dozens of The Japanese chip industry in 2008 brings a glimmer of hope. Strike while the iron is hot, Tetsuro (Terry) Higashi, former CEO of Tokyo Electronics and a member of the Japanese government’s chip industry advisory group, said a few days ago that Japan must achieve 2nm mass production within ten years.

A game revolving around the development and manufacturing of chip technology has made many countries aware of the importance of independent chips, and they have poured into the army of chip research and development. Among these countries, Japan is the only country whose semiconductor industry has experienced both glory and decline. On the basis of the existing industry, Japan seems to be determined to recover the semiconductor industry.

A dead camel is bigger than a horse

We may be able to intuitively feel the decline of Japanese semiconductors from a picture. In 1988, Japan accounted for 50.3% of the global semiconductor industry market share and was the largest semiconductor producer at that time. At the same time, 60% of the world’s top semiconductor companies were located in Japan. Taking this as a dividing point, the line chart representing the weight of Japan’s semiconductors has fallen all the way, and has never returned to growth.

There is another demarcation point, as the industry develops, semiconductors are gradually differentiated into fabless companies that design chips and foundries that manufacture chips designed by chipless companies, a trend that affects Japanese IDMs that handle all chip manufacturing processes ( integrated equipment makers), resulting in a steady decline in Japanese semiconductor revenue since 2010.

It is an indisputable fact that Japanese semiconductors have gone from leading the way to the altar, but it is not entirely groundless to use the expertise of global chip manufacturers to revitalize the domestic chip industry. Compared with other countries, the former glory has been left behind after all. certain foundation.

For example, in the upstream of the semiconductor industry, that is, raw materials and manufacturing equipment, Japan still plays a pivotal role.

In the field of global semiconductor equipment manufacturing, the United States, Japan and the Netherlands control more than 90% of the global $37 billion semiconductor manufacturing equipment market. Among them, the semiconductor manufacturing equipment (SME) industry in the United States accounts for nearly 50% of global production, Japan accounts for about 30%, and the Netherlands accounts for about 17%.

More specifically, taking the lithography machine as an example, the EUV lithography process actually involves the participation of many Japanese manufacturers. For example, the EUV coating and developing equipment produced by Tokyo Electronics occupies 100% of the market share. Lasertec Corp. is also the only testing machine in the world. manufacturer. There is also EUV photoresist. According to a related report released by NTU Optoelectronics in March, only Japanese manufacturers in the world have developed EUV photoresist.

In the field of raw materials, according to SEMI forecasts, Japanese companies account for about 52% of the global semiconductor material market, almost in a monopoly position, while North America and Europe each account for about 15%.

Looking at the middle and lower reaches, in the 1960s and 1970s, Kyushu Island used to be a gathering place for Japan’s semiconductor and automobile industries. Mitsubishi Electric and NEC successively opened Electronic factories in Kumamoto Prefecture, and then the semiconductor chip industry continued to gather. Although the “Silicon Island” has disappeared from its former glory, most of the factories and industrial chains of the Japanese semiconductor industry are still concentrated here. According to the Kyushu Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry, the output value of integrated circuits in the region reached 736.1 billion yen last year, accounting for 43% of the national total.

In contrast, under the background of domestic substitution, domestic chip start-ups have sprung up, making my country’s semiconductor industry more fragmented, exacerbating the problem of low concentration, and likely leading to the dispersion of talents.

For Japan, the semiconductor industry that once had nearly half of the global market share, and now no company has entered the top 10 in terms of sales scale. It is too difficult to say that the rise of semiconductors, but the settlement of TSMC has undoubtedly boosted its morale to seek recovery. . However, it has to plan for decades to grow.

New Opportunities for Japanese Semiconductors

The decline of Japanese semiconductors has various reasons such as politics, economy, and lack of innovation, but more is the lack of motivation of the industry itself.

Before the 1990s, Japan’s manufacturing industry was in full swing and entered an unprecedentedly brilliant era. Major high-end technology industries such as home appliances, automobiles, digital cameras, machinery, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and optical industries advanced side by side, almost becoming the representative of the world’s highest manufacturing level. Counting down the list of the world’s top 50 companies at that time, the names of Mitsubishi, Toyota, Panasonic, Hitachi, Sony, Honda, Toshiba and other companies often appear on the list.

The huge and prosperous consumer electronics market has greatly increased the demand for chips by enterprises, which directly drives the rapid growth of Japanese semiconductors. However, now, Japan’s consumer electronics and home appliance industries such as smartphones and cameras have all declined, and the semiconductor industry has gradually lost its competitiveness in the process.

Especially for smartphones, Japan’s aphasia in the mobile Internet era has led to almost no demand for advanced process logic chips, and it will not spend as much effort as TSMC to continuously pursue technological breakthroughs. According to reports, Japan’s logic semiconductors developed to 65nm-45nm around 2010, and later became outdated. The 28nm-45nm node accounted for only 5%, and it was unable to produce 28nm, only a small amount of 45nm.

Such a large technical gap determines that Japan’s wafer technology and production capacity cannot catch up with the most advanced level represented by PSMC in a short period of time. What’s more, the cooperation between TSMC and Sony is aimed at the 22-28nm process. chip manufacturing.

In fact, the purpose of Japan’s win over TSMC is not this, but the manufacture of automotive chips.

Although 22nm-28nm chips have fallen behind in smartphone processors, the chips used in the automotive industry are still cutting-edge technologies. Compared with cutting-edge chips used in smartphones, they do not require special processes and are easier to reduce production costs.

Looking closely at the industries left by Japanese manufacturing, in the downstream product field, in addition to automobiles, many Japanese manufacturing companies have “collectively fallen” and lost their absolute right to speak on the track. The reason why Japan’s Renesas Electronics has survived to this day is directly related to the fact that the Japanese auto industry is still the main force in the world. Most of Renesas Electronics’ chip products are MCU chips for Toyota and other Japanese car companies.

Therefore, when the trend of electric vehicles is blowing in the global market, if Japan realizes the independent research and development of 28nm chips with the help of TSMC, it will be backed by a strong automobile industry chain, whether it is for the long-term development of Japan’s electric vehicle industry or for Japanese semiconductors. Excavation of living space , seeking to narrow the technological gap, is a huge progress.

The rise of electric vehicles in 2021 means that there will soon be a major reshuffle of the auto industry in the world, and Japan’s bet on it has already begun.

It is difficult to return the lost chip talents

In the past two years, Japan’s ambitions for the recovery of the semiconductor industry have become more and more obvious. On the one hand, it tried its best to win over industry leaders like TSMC and Intel to build factories in Japan; on the other hand, the revitalization of the chip industry was listed as a national project, and a supplementary expenditure of 6.8 billion US dollars was approved. According to reports, the Japanese government will also provide financial support to assist Japanese companies to develop next-generation semiconductor manufacturing technology after 2nm.

Of course, at a time when 28nm chips have not yet been independently developed, it is a bit whimsical for Japan to point to 2nm research and development within ten years. Japan, which has a semiconductor industry foundation and has been gaining momentum for technologies such as automotive electronics, Internet of Things, sensors and 5G, is still not small. watch for.

Compared with China and Japan, it is also a national force, but the route is obviously different. One place takes the lead in cross-border parallel with giants, relying on investment and mergers and acquisitions, and the other is based on the existing semiconductor industry and uses foreign companies to activate the potential of the industry. Although each has its own national conditions and choices, the disadvantages are also more obvious. The former is not the industry professional, and blind development can easily lead to the tragedy of unfinished chips. The latter is most afraid of spending money and cannot obtain advanced technology.

However, the root cause of these two problems is also a difficult problem – the shortage of people and chip talents lies in the layout of the chip industry in the two countries.

Since the 1990s, the Japanese semiconductor industry has gradually declined, followed by an outflow of chip talents. In 2012, Renesas Technology and NEC Electronics, a joint venture between Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric, changed its name to Renesas Electronics. Initially, the total number of employees was about 49,200. The Japanese industrial innovation agency was acquired, and its head carried out a complete wave of layoffs.

In the same year, Japan’s Elpida Memory, which fell into sluggish performance due to the bursting of the IT bubble and the Lehman crisis, went bankrupt and more than 10,000 employees lost their jobs instantly. Most of these semiconductor technicians who have lost their footing can only find new jobs overseas.

Another reason for Japan’s brain drain is peer poaching. According to statistics, more than 40% of Japanese talents who have transferred to overseas companies are from South Korea and nearly 30% from China are from 8 major Japanese companies such as Hitachi and Panasonic, many of which have obtained frequently cited patents. Japan’s top talent”.

Now that Japan is revitalizing semiconductors, the biggest shortage is talents, but can the lost talents come back or be retrained?

One, the issue of age; the age of technical talents cultivated in the golden age of Japanese semiconductors is increasing. An engineer in his 40s in 2010 may now be in his 50s, or even approaching retirement age.

Second, the gradual decline of Japanese semiconductors has led to a lag in the education and training of semiconductor talents in China. Although today’s high school graduates have high technical skills, they have hardly received semiconductor professional education and are rarely active in the semiconductor industry.

Compared with the abundance of talents in the past, the Japanese semiconductor industry is now barren.

It is no wonder that Japan itself is full of pessimism about the future chip industry. In June, the conference document “Semiconductor Strategy (Outline)” released by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan mentioned that the global share of Japanese semiconductors will be reduced to zero by 2030. This prediction is both a disappointment and a wake-up call.

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