Once it was under way, Sematech’s leaders worked to translate that sense of urgency into the organization’s culture. A simple imperative they often repeated was “If it’s not competitive, change it.” Sematech’s technologists would identify important goals, such as reducing circuit line widths to reduce chip size, or manufacturing challenges, such as reducing chip defects, and research the best way to solve them. Often, that involved helping and funding U.S. companies that manufactured chip-making equipment.
More than anything, several observers attribute the no-nonsense culture to Robert Noyce, coinventor of the integrated circuit and cofounder of Intel, who left retirement to head Sematech shortly after it started. His egalitarian management style initially caused a certain chaos and frustration among Sematech’s managers, but it also kept bureaucracy at bay by encouraging experimentation and innovative thinking, according to University of Texas professor Larry D. Browning, lead author of a 1995 study on Sematech.
Despite the promising start, by 1990 some critics said Sematech hadn’t yet accomplished much—partly because at first, many companies didn’t send their top talent to work the requisite two-year stints at the organization. After Noyce died unexpectedly in 1990 and longtime Xerox executive Spencer was appointed CEO, he began targeting key people at member companies to join Sematech, cajoling company CEOs into making sure he got them. “By the next wave, we had top people competing for new spots,” recalls Spencer. When those people returned to their companies, they were in a position to push the technologies researched at Sematech into the design and manufacturing process.
The presence of top technical people and the deep involvement of their technically savvy CEOs also ensured that the right technologies, not just those championed by the most powerful companies, got funded while others were abandoned quickly. For example, says Hutcheson, when it became apparent in the 1990s that a particular technology for transferring chip designs onto silicon wafers was too costly, Sematech helped develop the one that became the standard. Says Hutcheson: “What’s innovative about Sematech is that it’s essentially a crowdsourced method of deciding what should be the next technologies to pursue.”
Not least, Sematech proved itself willing to make repeated shifts in strategy as market needs changed. As the U.S. industry recovered in the mid-1990s, for instance, the group decided to stop seeking federal funding, and members stepped up their contributions to partly fill the gap. And in another wrenching shift in strategy, Sematech expanded to include some international companies as it became apparent that a U.S.-only supply chain would no longer work.
Today, Sematech is in the midst of yet another transition. Under CEO Dan Armbrust, it has created and will manage a new Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium funded by the industry, the Department of Energy, and the state of New York. With a mission to help develop a new kind of photovoltaic manufacturing technology—one that, ironically, could replace polysilicon in solar panels—the project again places Sematech in the role of revitalizing a key industry.