"Pursuing the global digital utopia" was the theme of a recent conference in Malta. David Ridsdale reports.
Historic Malta was the magnificent setting for the 14th International Electronics Forum held by research group Future Horizons. The annual event has become an exceptional networking experience with global manufacturing companies sending top-level executives to the event. The theme of this years conference was "Pursuing the global digital utopia", and offered an array of speakers presenting informative talks on issues that looked at the bigger picture of the microelectronic industry. As is usual at these types of events, there were more questions than answers, but the way the conference was organised there was enough informal time for attendees to discuss potential solutions to the issues raised.
Maltese prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, who said that Malta could be seen as a microcosm of the European electronics industry, opened the conference. Malta has developed its electronics industry via long-term investment over time regardless of the political party in power. This is exactly the challenge facing the European microelectronics industry today and in the future as we move to nanoscale manufacturing. A tiny country such as Malta has demonstrated a logical approach to growth with electronics accounting for up to 40% of exports and one of the highest rates of tertiary and further education in all of Europe. The commitment from the Maltese government was also evident in the extraordinary effort in the social aspect of the conference.
Speakers at the show focused on the theme of creating a global utopia of integrated electronic devices for a consumer market. The main prerequisites seem to be ease of use and power management. The discrepancy between what is imagined and what is offered was highlighted a number of times and the realistic concerns of cost of research for progression dominated many speakers discussions. Almost every speaker spoke on the need for greater collaboration between companies.
A pressing issue that arose was the need for collaboration along the food chain. No longer can manufacturers be isolated from designers, testers or final product manufacturers. The interlinking of differing disciplines is a key challenge as the industry moves to more complex devices. To this end, one section of the conference was dedicated to electronic design automation (EDA) companies who discussed how they had become the de facto go-between for manufacturers and designers. The emphasis was on a change in industry perception to view semiconductor manufacturing from the starting point of the consumer product.
Mark Pinto, the new CTO for Applied Materials, gave a challenging discussion on the future of microelectronics, focusing on the much-hyped nanotechnology. Pinto rightly pointed out that the semiconductor industry had been manufacturing at a nano level for years and urged industry and policy makers alike not to get caught up in over excited probabilities and ensure solid research and investment is done for a longer term vision. Pinto stated that he expected semiconductor and microelectronics to be the main driver for nanotechnology for the next five to ten years.
Market analyst Malcolm Penn gave his usual bold forecast for the year and even asked the audience if he had not gone a bit mad when he predicted 15% growth for the worldwide semiconductor market. The reasoning was that every other analyst company had been forecasting between -5% and 9% growth for 2005. It is usual for Penn to be predicting out of the norm at this time of the year. His modus operandi is traditionally to stand by his January prediction and not tweak it until mid year. For the last three years Penn has proven to be one of the most accurate long-term forecasters in the industry (see Bulletin 581). Despite some attendees wondering if Penn was just wishful thinking, a number of companies have changed their forecasts and moved closer to Penns prediction. Most notable was Intel stating that it now expects double-digit growth. Whatever the outcome, Penn has shown he now runs one of the best industry networking events for the microelectronics industry.