domingo, 2 de junio de 2013

Argentina se anima a los semiconductores

Argentine pioneer spies technical niche in semiconductors

Workers in white coats and protective shoe covers pad across the duck-egg blue floor of a gleaming new facility built on the site of a former textile factory.
The machines purr rather than roar and it feels more like a sterile hospital than an important part of a 21st century industrial revolution for Latin America.

But Eduardo Eurnekian, one of Argentina’s most successful businessmen whose Corporación América runs 49 airports in seven Latin American and European countries, has spied what he sees as a new niche: semiconductors.
He is planning to invest $1.2bn into an operation that will initially produce chips for smart cards, such as rechargeable travel passes, as well as for mobile phones, bank cards and passports. But in time, the plan is to span the whole production chain: from extraction of silica sand, to manufacture of the silicon wafers from which chips are cut, to production of the sophisticated microchips themselves.
None of the technology is itself new – indeed, the factory, located in Chascomús, 120km (75 miles) south of Buenos Aires, will produce transistors, the “building blocks” of chips, spaced between 350 to 90 nanometres apart. Chips that form the digital brain of the latest gadgets, such as the iPad, are built with transistors spaced just 40nm apart and therefore much more powerful. Industry leaders, such as Intel, are building chips with transistors spaced 22nm apart.
But the company, Unitec Blue, is billing itself as a Latin American semiconductor pioneer, capable of supplying chips competitively to the region that are suited to a broad range of industrial applications that do not require the most cutting-edge technology.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” acknowledges Matías Gainza Eurnekian, Mr Eurnekian’s 27-year-old nephew and a former yachting world champion who is chief executive of Unitec Blue. For him, it’s not about producing more cheaply than Asia – something experts say would be impossible – but competing in things such as delivery time.
He currently buys silicon wafers from abroad that already contain some chips and further processes it. In a second phase, Unitec plans to take wafers and produce the integrated circuits themselves. “Many times, the design of the intellectual property is our own; other times it belongs to the clients and we produce under existing patents provided by them. We have a department of development for clients,” Mr Gainza Eurnekian said.

Companies in Argentina imported $980m-worth of chips in 2012 and that figure is expected to grow to $1.3bn this year, says Mr Gainza Eurnekian, adding that Brazil’s market is seven times larger. Meanwhile, the regional market from “south of Mexico down”, where Unitec hopes to compete, is worth $17bn, he says. “I can gain a lot in the logistics.”
Mr Gainza Eurnekian expects to supply chips to the producers in Brazil of finished products, such as a card with a chip inside, and is also eyeing contracts to supply passport chips to the US government.
Brazil has struggled for years to get a semiconductor industry up and running, but is also pitching hard to become a leading regional semiconductor producer. It already has a small-scale semiconductor manufacturer in Ceitec. Meanwhile, IBM and Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista’s EBX are also planning a joint-venture chip company
But Unitec is marketing itself aggressively as a pioneer and Mr Gainza Eurnekian says: “There’s no plant [in the region] that can compete.”
“I think there is room for a regional player because all of these foundries are not located in Latin America,” agreed Samuel Tuan Wang, research vice-president at Gartner, a technology consultancy. Most contract semiconductor manufacturers are found in Asia and the US, with the global industry dominated by Taiwan’s TSMC.
In Latin America, technology producer Intel owns a plant in Costa Rica, but it does not contract out its use to other chip companies.
Setting up Unitec Blue in Argentina, was not, however, without hurdles: Argentine import restrictions held up the delivery of the necessary machinery from Germany.

But import controls imposed by a protectionist-minded government seeking to spur local manufacturing could give Argentina a leg-up in developing microchip design and “deepening Argentina’s technological possibilities”, said Pedro Julián, an expert on the industry and professor at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional del Sur, who is working on a microchip design project and says a Unitec foundry could be “very complementary”.
“They’re moving into a segment in which we could use regional scale,” he added.
The venture, due for its official inauguration by Cristina Fernández, Agentina’s president, on June 4, is entirely funded by Corporación América’s own capital. “Now’s the time to invest in Argentina,” says Mr Eurnekian. “Assets are cheap.”
Argentina is blighted by inflation running at an estimated 24 per cent a year and foreign currency controls that have spooked other investors, including Brazil’s Vale, prompting it to dump a $6bn potash project.
But for Mr Eurnekian, the equation was simple. “I try to investigate niches where there is potential,” he says.

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