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IFTLE 241 Simply Obeying the Laws of Economics

By Dr. Phil Garrou, Contributing Editor

Following up on the recent blog by my comrade, Dick James.

There are laws and then there are laws. “Moore’s Law” to me is more of an observation. Gordon Moore simply noticed what was going on and commented on it.  Powerful laws, to me, are usually laws of physics like Newtons law of gravity or Einsteins Law of relativity.

When we consider the laws of economics, many economists would contend that consolidation is a law,   i.e. a natural process which has happened consistently to all industries since the industrial revolution. Through consolidation a mature industry usually has only a few (2-3) players ( for instance Boeing and Airbus in the aircraft manufacturing business) whereas young industries like the internet may initially have hundreds.

CarvilleSo what does this have to do with microelectronics you might say. Well, just ask the former employees of Altera and Broadcom. If this were the early 1990s James Carville (Clintons spinmeister) would respond “It’s consolidation stupid” [I was not a Carvile fan as you can tell by the picture I picked out !] Consolidation is what happens as industries mature. We are in the midst of it, it’s natural and probably unstoppable.

Lets first take a look at what’s happened in the hard disk drive segment of our industry.

Greater than 200 companies have been in the hard disk drive business since the 1960s. They initially competed on data density and latency and smaller form factors. Most of that industry has vanished through bankruptcy, mergers and acquisitions. Surviving manufacturers are Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital. Seagate  acquired Samsung’s HDD business in 2011;  Western Digital (WD) merged with Hitachi’s HDD business in 2011. This gave Seagate 40% of the HDD market and WD ~ 48%. The remaining ~ 12% was owned by Toshiba who acquired Fujitsu’s HDD business in 2009. Thus by 2012 what was several hundred players had been whittled down to 3 by, I contend, the laws of economics.

HDD

Now let’s look at DRAM.

DRAM

In 1980 there were 40+ DRAM fabricators but by 2015 we are down to Samsung, Hynix and Micron. See the trend?

The best description of whats happening, that I have seen is the 2002 Harvard Business Review article “The Consolidation Curve” by G K Deans et. al. Their main point is that all industries have similar life cycles and knowing where your company stands in the process can help you plot a winning strategy.

They divide up the stages of all industries as follows:

Stage 1: the combined market share of the three largest companies is between 10% and 30%. Companies in stage 1 industries aggressively defend their first-in advantage by building scale, creating a global footprint and establishing barriers to entry, i.e. protecting proprietary technology or ideas. Stage 1 companies focus more on revenue than profit, working to amass market share.

Stage 2: Stage 2 is all about scaling. Major players begin to emerge and buy up competitors.  The top three players in a stage 2 industry will own 15% – 45% of their market, as the industry consolidates. The companies that reach stage 3 must be among the first players in the industry to capture the most important markets and expand their global reach.

Stage 3: companies focus on expanding  core business and continuing to aggressively outgrow the competition. The top three industry players will control between 35% and 70% of the market with five to 12 major players remaining. This is a period of large-scale consolidation plays. Companies in stage 3 industries focus on profitability, and pare weak businesses units. The well entrenched in this phase will attack underperformers. Recognizing start-up competitors early on allows market leaders to decide whether to crush or acquire them. Stage 3 companies should also identify other major players that will likely survive into the next, and final, stage and avoid all-out assaults on them which could leave both players injured.

Stage 4: In stage 4 the top three companies claim as much as 70% to 90% of the market. Large companies may form alliances with their peers because growth is now more challenging. Companies in stage 4 must defend their leading positions. They must be alert to the danger of being lulled into complacency by their own dominance. Stage 4 companies must create growth by spinning off new businesses or buying into aligned fields to broaden their market presence.

When you understand this then headlines like the recent “The next three chip firms to be acquired: Atmel, Lattice and Cavium are the top take out candidates for the rest of 2015”[link]

As most of the segments of our industry enter late stage 3 or early stage 4 the only question is whether you will acquire or be acquired, or as Carville said “ It’s the economy stupid!”

For all the latest on 3DIC and advanced packaging, stay linked to IFTLE…

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