16 October 2001 · Source: EUREKA News · Download PDF

Clustering the future of Europe's IT

Bringing together large and small companies in clusters, to work on key enabling technologies, may just be the solution to a perennial problem for Europe’s IT industry. Whilst the many small companies in the field often give Europe a head start in the race to the next-generation technologies, they are all too often beaten to the finishing line by larger American counterparts.

 

The large companies, such as Intel and Microsoft, which dominate US IT, have the corporate muscle to bring ideas to market alone. In the more fragmented European sector, IT firms can only stay creative and attain a critical mass of investment if they work together. Issues like intellectual property rights made this difficult in the past, but with EUREKA's cluster projects Europe's competitors are now working together, improving everybody's prospects in the global competition with America and the Far East.

 

And the companies can't get enough. "It's close to industry. In European Union programmes there are only two or three people who control the project, but in our programme there is a lot of useful discussion," says Rene Roussille, from the EURIMUS (microsystems) cluster project. Eric Daclin, vice chairman of the ITEA software cluster, agrees. "The EUREKA approach is bottom up. The reason why industry wants to go under the EUREKA umbrella is because clusters are an initiative of industry, and industry is free to bring its ideas in."

 

Cluster projects involve far more partners than an average EUREKA project, and pull a large budget. MEDEA, building on the pioneer JESSI, was one of the first, and has set an ambitious precedent for clusters of the future. It shrunk whole computer systems onto single chips and helped three European manufacturers ­ Infineon Technologies, Philips and ST Microelectronics ­ into the top ten ranking semiconductor fabricators in the world.

 

Philips has participated in several MEDEA projects. "It is important to have an organisation like MEDEA to initiate cooperation between companies, and to arrange a structure in which you can run these projects," said Hans van Zonneveld of the Philips Research Laboratories. "Collaboration has led to a quicker definition of technology architectures, and EUREKA was a good way of dealing with standardisation across the partners."

 

With a seemingly insatiable market for ever smaller systems, EUREKA has thrown its weight behind European industry by supporting MEDEA's successor, the 4,000 million euro MEDEA+ programme. MEDEA+ and the three other IT clusters are each like a microcosm of EUREKA. Cluster management is devolved to a head office in each case, which calls for project proposals. MEDEA/MEDEA+ are good examples of what can be achieved when companies and research institutes work together on this scale.

 

A wider reach

 

"What is important is to have a high level of participation in terms of the number of countries involved, the number of partners and the range of partners ­ universities, research institutes and companies, large and small," says Gerard Matheron, manager of the MEDEA+ office. The wide spectrum of partners means that the cluster covers most potential application bases.

 

Collaboration between microelectronics and systems companies is vital if Europe is to stay at the leading edge of electronics. MEDEA+ is avoiding the commercial pressures that can divide otherwise happy partnerships by concentrating on generic ‘platform' technologies that underpin future product development, but are not marketable products themselves. MEDEA+ allows competing systems companies to pool their energies to set better standards for all.

 

"MEDEA provides a good framework. Importantly it makes very large projects possible, but also, because it is designed by industry, it reflects industrial needs and understands industry's problems," says Sven Bauer of Bosch. He coordinated a MEDEA project and is now setting up a new MEDEA+ project. He believes that, "MEDEA offers the possibility to exchange and cooperate in a way which is not supported by any other framework."

 

The MEDEA+ cluster is large enough to strengthen key strategic areas of the European microelectronics sector. "We're trying to focus even more on global sectors that are in high growth, like high-speed, mobile internet access, automotive electronics such as in-car workstations and secure communications for smart cards," says Matheron. Of the 40 projects MEDEA+ has selected so far only a handful address these technologies, and the next call for proposals is likely to focus more on these areas.

 

Looking ahead

 

The size and prestige of cluster projects also makes MEDEA+ a useful place for European electronics companies to address the global stage ­ particularly before and after meetings to discuss development of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors. This map was drawn up by industry associations to identify the technological challenges facing the semiconductor industry until 2014.

 

MEDEA+, along with PIDEA, ITEA and EURIMUS, proves that clusters are the way ahead for the IT sector, so why stop the critical mass there? The programme managers are now looking to collaboration not only between projects in their own backyard, but between the clusters. "Between ITEA, PIDEA and MEDEA+ we have decided to have at least twice yearly meetings at chairman level to discuss projects where cooperation would be suitable," says Matheron. Projects may even be exchanged between different clusters. "It is sometimes very difficult to put borders between programmes, and one of our projects will move soon to PIDEA."

 

Mutual advantage underpins the relationships within and between the four clusters. As Matheron says, each contributes parts to the whole: "It is impossible to think about the final package without silicon technology, or to think silicon without the final package, so cooperation is very important in this area."

 

A big project for the small scale ­ EURIMUS
The development of smaller electronics systems has made mobile phones and laptop computers possible, and the quest for ever smaller and more sophisticated applications shows no sign of abating. With the market for microsystem technologies set to grow by 7,000 million euros in the next two years, the EURIMUS cluster project is very timely. This sector seems unstoppable, as microsystems march into every industry, with applications for everyone in areas from vehicles to medicine.

 

Over its five-year lifespan EURIMUS aims to develop a network of microsystems cooperation across Europe. The 400 million euro budget will support over 100 projects, with 23 already under way. Rene Roussille, from the EURIMUS project office, believes the project has to be this big to foster rapid market growth, and that the mixture of players is healthy for innovation. "Microsystems is not a well-established business, so we have a lot of small company involvement," he says. "A large company might be involved in a few different projects, and need specific work from small companies. EURIMUS is a natural cooperation between larger and smaller entrepreneurs."

 

These partnerships themselves spark off other applications, and in an industry where small companies are common there is no shortage of innovators willing to take new ideas further. The cluster is also a non-competitive place for companies to work on improving shared technology tools to make microsystems engineering easier for everyone.

 

Although there are a lot of big companies in the microsystems market none are in the strategic position of EURIMUS. "The technical committee in charge of project selection is made up of some of the most important people in microsystems," says Roussille. "When we look at proposals we give a lot of advice to the consortium and point out difficulties ­ we help them design a better project. "In working with the whole sector the EURIMUS cluster is expected to help strengthen Europe's hand in the microsystems field.

 

Putting components together ­ PIDEA
The smaller, smarter chips resulting from MEDEA projects need some pretty sophisticated bodywork to turn them into functioning consumer products. A second EUREKA cluster project, in packaging and interconnection, is revving up to take the next generation of information and communications technology to market fast.

 

PIDEA kicked off in 1998 and already has 13 projects running, with more in the pipeline. It aims to pioneer new ways of connecting components through circuit boards and cables so that electronics technologies can realise their full potential. For instance, the miniaturisation of mobile phones requires ever more precise methods of mounting components. Besides making packaging materials smarter, the PIDEA partners are also making them stronger to help make electronics more reliable in harsh environments.

 

As an essential part of the product development cycle, a strong industry for packaging electronics is vital if Europe is to reap the full rewards of its innovation. This sector is characterised by a large number of small companies, and Isabelle Boistard, PIDEA office manager, describes the cluster project as a great way of keeping European companies on the up. "In microprocessors, most of the activity is done by large companies. But in interconnection ­ the work that has to be done around the microprocessor ­ most of the work is done by very innovative small companies."

 

These companies are looking to the future, and PIDEA clusters are making progress easy through the pooling of ideas. "The partnerships are very efficient," says Boistard. "When you look at each consortium you don't have to ask what each partner is doing there. It is logical. For instance you have one equipment manufacturer, one laboratory and one designer. It is obvious they need to work together, and PIDEA is an opportunity for them to meet and build more cooperation."

 

Software to run everything – ITEA
Intellectual property lawyers are rare visitors to ITEA projects. By concentrating on the long term, competitors can work together without compromising their near-market research. "We are not aiming at developing products. We are pushing for enabling technologies," says Eric Daclin, ITEA’s vice chairman. For instance, one ITEA project sees major car manufacturers pooling energies to define the software required for forthcoming digital cars. "If the project succeeds it will mean a common European platform for cars. Costs will be reduced and the economic success will be greater and come quicker," says Daclin. With common standards, the manufacturers re-enter the competitive world, pursuing their own product lines.

 

With its pre-competitive focus, ITEA offers European companies and research institutes a unique opportunity to set the software development pace. As software goes digital the scene is changing fast. "There is a convergence between three kinds of industry – telecoms, electronic consumer products and classical IT," says Daclin. He believes ITEA is currently the only forum where a common vision can develop.

 

To compete on the global stage, the ITEA programme has to be big. "We are late on software compared to the US, so we need a big project to catch up", says Daclin. Sub-projects can mobilise as much as 300 man years over a two-year duration, so size is not going to be a problem for ITEA. "These are huge projects by any standard," says Daclin, adding that the common vision through all ITEA’s sub-projects is also going some way to making the whole a success.

 

The ultimate goal of ITEA is to help Europe maintain and improve its standing in the telecoms, automotive and consumer electronics sectors. By focusing on middleware – the software that sits between lower level systems and user – ITEA opens the door to a huge range of applications. From aircraft to kitchen ovens, this cluster promises to make ordinary life better than ever before.

 

Joining ever smaller dots

Every month IT equipment gets smaller and yet more powerful than its predecessors. Components are getting smaller, but today's micro-products could not exist without sophisticated packaging techniques. PIDEA's HEIDI project is just one helping European industry put together ever smaller, cleverer circuit systems.

 

HEIDI brings together partners from France, Belgium and Italy to develop so-called ‘microvias'. These are sub-millimetre, metal-lined holes in circuit boards which connect two components such as chips on either side of a circuit board. HEIDI uses lasers to drill microvias holes less than 70 microns wide.

 

The circuit boards used are designed for harsh environments like aviation or motoring. "We have put a number of layers on a standard circuit board," says Daniel Lambert of lead partner, Bull. "We have developed a manufacturing process able to produce boards that survive these environments. It doesn't involve special materials but is well controlled in terms of putting a metal, copper, through the vias holes."

 

Printing in miniature

The chips which run everything from a PC to a personal stereo, from a microwave to a car, are constantly getting more powerful, yet at the same time they are becoming smaller. To squeeze more and more power onto a chip, new ever more intricate forms of lithography are required. This is the process in which the electric circuit is imprinted onto the silicon wafers which form the heart of the chips.

 

The EXTATIC MEDEA+ sub-project, with Dutch, German and French partners, is developing machines to use extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL) to create more intricate circuits. Current visible light lithography using lasers and optical lenses can imprint circuits at a size of around 100 nm. Using ultraviolet, which has a shorter wavelength, it is expected that features of 50 nm and smaller can be printed, using mirrors in a vacuum. To get a sense of the scale, one nanometre is one million of a millimetre.

 

Hans Meiling of Dutch lead partner ASML says, "EXTATIC will result I one of the first full-field EUV step and scan systems. Our goal is to demonstrate that EUVL is the lithography tool of choice for the 50nm node and smaller." The project continues the work of a recent EU Esprit project, as well as a French national project, demonstrating the synergies between the different research support mechanisms in Europe. Indeed the German government is providing some €60 million in funding to the German companies involved in this and two related MEDEA+ projects.

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