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January 12, 1998


SCL plans to be 'smart card makers of the nation'

Rebuilt with an investment of Rs 3.32 billion, the Semiconductor Complex Limited at Chandigarh would like to quickly put back its fire accident of 1989 and position itself, not just as the best in the chip business in the country but also as the 'smart card makers of the nation'.

The new enthusiasm stems from the re-creation of the 'very large scale integrated circuits' fabrication facility, which was inaugurated by the Prime Minister I K Gujral in December. The new facility can process 100,000 wafers per annum.

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In addition to smart cards, SCL wants to get into the manufacture of electronic energy metres and telecom access systems to get a share of the growing requirements in the power and telecom industry, said Dr M J Zarabi, chairman-cum-managing director.

To take on global competition, SCL is exploring the possibility of forging a joint venture with a leading international semiconductor company. "We are open to strategic joint ventures in specific areas as well as giving a higher equity to our partner,'' Dr Zarabi has said.

To position itself favourably for a joint venture, the public-sector unit has hired the services of the ICICI Securities and Finance Company, I-Sec, for the preparation of its information memorandum.

Armed with a cabinet approval to form a joint venture, SCL has already got in touch with international semiconductor companies, he said.

SCL favours a joint venture that would help market its products overseas and hence leverage itself as a global player, obtain technology co-operation in chip design and more funds to upgrade its research and development activity.

SCL, under the Department of Electronics, has a chequered past. Set up in 1983 as a leading institute in the areas of VLSI, it suffered a major setback in February 1989, when its wafer fabrication facility was burnt down under mysterious circumstances.

Since then, though research and development activity has been on, the scar left by the accident has clouded these efforts. During the lull phase of 1989-97, SCL had hired the wafer fabrication facility of the Austrian Micro-Systems (AMS) to test the products developed, even while continuing in-house design and development activities.

In its new avatar, SCL hopes to carve out a niche market in the telecom, consumer, industrial, power, defence and space sectors, Dr Zarabi explained. While the first VLSI product to be used in electronic telecom exchanges has already been produced, SCL has another five products in the pipeline with applications in telephone instruments, exchanges, clocks, watches and space technology.

In the area of power, scientists have recently designed a three-phase electronic energy chip and transferred know-how to the BHEL, Bangalore. A single-phase metre was developed earlier. For smart card manufacture, the company has set apart funds and created an exclusive smart card line. "We are looking for strategic alliances with leading players like Schlumberger of France,'' Dr Zarabi said.

How does SCL plan to attract talented professionals in the field as multinationals have been grabbing the few dozens of students trained annually with lucrative offers? Dr Zarabi agrees human resources would be a problem, but says they are confident of finding a way out.

Dr Zarabi said as far as ASICs (application specific integrated chips) are concerned the entry of multinationals would not affect SCL's business. In the area of chip design, the multinationals are ahead with thickness as minute as .35 micron, while SCL can produce up to .8 micron. "We are more a logic company and less of memory, which requires higher technological competence at the moment, though our growth will be towards other products too,'' he said.

- Compiled from the Indian media

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