India Can Make It Big In Semiconductor Manufacturing; What's Needed Is Intelligent, Sustained Engagement: Tata Electronics CEO
For the past few months, Tata Electronics (TEPL) has been in the news related to its possible ambitions in entering the semiconductor space in India.
Swarajya contributor Arun Mampazhy caught up with Sri Raja Manickam, CEO of Tata Electronics (OSAT division) and in this exclusive interview, he covers a wide range of topics starting with his journey, some of Tata Electronics' plans and his vision for manufacturing in India.
1) Hello Sri Raja Manickam. You founded Tessolve in 2004 which evolved into a multi-million dollar MNC within a decade. Now you have passed on the leadership of Tessolve and joined Tata electronics as CEO of its OSAT division. Please tell us more about key milestones in your journey.
I always wanted to come back to India and create a great company. A company that would be a legacy where people would have no fear, dare to innovate and can openly share their ideas. Those days, the mantra was lean and mean, which means extract as much work from people and be tough. People are equivalent to machines as an asset or liability. I wanted to change that and prove that we can be a caring company and be successful.
My entire career is in semiconductor and I was fortunate to have worked in all aspects including manufacturing, product line business management, new market in Telecom in the mid 90s, OSAT from ground zero, sales and marketing — pretty much the entire semiconductor chain. Also, I worked in multiple geographies. Having worked in Singapore, Malaysia, US and for a short stint in Japan in manufacturing, I felt that we could do this better and more efficiently in India. However, India was a closed economy, the bureaucracy was intimidating, and government policies were not enabling. We missed the boat.
In 2004, both my kids were in college and it was time for me to jump off the corporate MNC train and make my dream come true. I always wanted to create a large world class company. I wanted to create a TI or Intel or TSMC or Micron. It has to last for generations. I had seen companies like Broadcom, Qualcomm, and Xilinx come out of nowhere and become giants. I was confident that it can be done.
I wanted to create a manufacturing company. My heart was in manufacturing. I loved to see thousands of ordinary people create products — it is pure magic. I believe manufacturing creates many direct and indirect jobs, opens up multiple opportunities for MSME companies to participate and straddles both highly educated and lower levels. In short, it is inclusive.
My first milestone in my entrepreneur journey was finding a site to build Tessolve. I wanted to have our own building that characterizes our mission to be good, honest and people-friendly. Tessolve building in Electronics City is unique and has the colonial-cum-modern look with an avenue of trees. For a small startup, that was a big achievement.
My second milestone was recruiting freshers and training them in what I believed in a culture of no fear. Open discussions and helping each other. Understanding that as a team, we can achieve more than as individuals. My favourite basketball team in the US is Golden State Warriors and their slogan is “Strength in Numbers” … they have the highest assists for any NBA team… which means they trust their teammates and find teammates who are open to score versus individual “super star” glory.
Once I started the business, I quickly found out that it was hard to convince potential customers about our value proposition. Being new and unproven was difficult for customers to make decisions to give us work. But we persevered. All we had was talent that we had groomed, honesty and willingness to work hard. We made breakthroughs with Teradyne, TI and some smaller companies. The revenue was tiny as compared to our business plan.
While my personal money ran out quickly with building, capex and opex without revenue, angel investors, led by Ashok Belani helped me raise a decent fund to keep going. By 2007, I had to raise further funds and I approached Venture Capital.
In 2008, at the height of the economic collapse due to the mortgage crisis, I managed to raise substantial venture capital from top companies. This was a turning point where I had to make sure we had world class compliance, governance, transparency etc. The VCs made us be professionals.
After many ups and downs, the next milestone was acquisition of PCB design house in Coimbatore. Integrating the business was tough and we had problems with the seller. But in the long term, it has worked really well.
So that was my first taste of acquisition and I would say it was a positive experience. Subsequently, we did another acquisition, DTS in the US, which turned out to be a disaster. We justified the acquisition to build a team in the US for sales and customer support. But the individuals in the US were not open to work with my people in the US and pretty much the entire workforce in the US left.
So the investment was down the drain with zero returns.
I never veered from the fundamental belief that we would be the best in what we do. Our test engineering and PCB design was beginning to be on par or in some cases better than our customer engineering. We were creating value and customers started to recognise us. Outsourcing test was a novelty, but customers were curious to try it out.
We lucked out and now, it has become a strategy to outsource test engineering. I am happy to say that we are probably the #1 test engineering services company in the world by far.
In 2015, we added VLSI design services and in 2016 we added Embedded Systems. In both these segments, we are not dominant and it is a different value proposition.
In 2016, Hero Electronics, which was formed by Hero Motors family, bought out all the VC shareholders and became the largest shareholder with me as founder. I am happy to say that our employees made good money through this acquisition and everyone in the company including contracted staff got some payout.
That, to me, was the biggest accomplishment in Tessolve.
Moving forward post Hero, Tessolve is a more mature company, growing faster than the semiconductor market. I believe Tessolve would be a legacy company that pioneered semiconductor engineering in post silicon services.
2) You have said that you will not retire until India becomes a manufacturer of semiconductors, and that is great to hear. We are excited to hear more about upcoming plans. Let us start with media reports of Tata Electronics' plans of starting OSAT units in India — how much of the plan in terms of investments, locations, capacity, timelines, market and job creation can you tell us at this point? Perhaps, you can also tell us the difference between ATMP and OSAT.
OSAT and ATMP are the same. Loosely, we refer to OSAT as packaging and testing for multiple customers and ATMP is packaging and testing that is captive for a particular company.
For example, TI has its own packaging and test facilities in multiple locations and we refer to them as ATMP.
Until the late 80s, most semiconductor product companies had their own wafer fabs and packaging/test facilities. That trend changed with outsourced packaging and test and also outsourced wafer fab creating fabless companies.
It was a highly successful model that large companies like Broadcom, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia and others have no manufacturing, yet are able to compete with the likes of Intel.
This trend continues that some of the captive ATMPs were sold to manufacturing services companies and became OSAT. It continues to this day.
If anyone wants to get into manufacturing services, I think it makes sense to buy out some of the ATMPs and convert them to OSAT. This would give them a running start versus doing greenfield. I believe India has a lot of catching up to do, and Indian companies should take the acquisition route to get into the game.
This would also give a head start for Indian companies to build the factories in India.
Manufacturing is long-term play and requires high capital investment. One has to be patient to see the returns. But it is a stable business and can grow top line revenue extremely fast. I was involved in STATS (Specialist Testing and Technical Services) when they started in 1995 and it became a billion dollar company in less than eight years.
STATS also had great support from the Singapore Government to tide the early startup costs, learnings and losses.
In India, we are seeing the government aligning themselves well with the private sector in sync to build the semiconductor manufacturing industry
3) What about the reports in the media about the facility that Tata is building or has already built near Hosur or Krishnagiri? Is that for Assembly of Mobiles and other electronic goods? Or is it to make electronic or non-electronic components that go into consumer electronic goods? Or both?
4) For the component manufacturing or OSAT or ATMP plans of Tata electronics, how much of technology dependence is there on global players as technology partners or for transfer or technology versus how much of the technology itself are you expecting to develop in- house in India? Are media reports of Tata electronics in talks with companies in Taiwan related? Will your Tessolve experience be of great help?
I would split manufacturing into two segments. One is mature technology which is prevalent in the industry and probably drives 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the revenue. Most of these packaging is relatively easy to develop. Most patents are past their life, so should have very little patent issues. In order to get into the OSAT business, one should be able to offer these mature technology packaging. It does not require partners or technology transfer.
The second growth story is Advanced Packaging or Heterogenous Packaging. This is the inflection point in packaging. It involves wafer fab like processing. TSMC dominates this space as they are strong in wafer fab process. However, in order to be successful, there is integration of chip design, substrate design, assembly DFM and finally test strategy. This opens up opportunities for India where we are strong in design in general and it would not take too much for us to be the best in package design as well.
The business engagement model for Advanced Packaging would involve design, characterizing multiple materials, electrical/thermal optimizing and most importantly power optimizing. It's great for engineering-led manufacturing.
At Tata, I would want to build “Engineering Intensive Manufacturing”.
5) What are your views on the recently announced $10billion incentive programme by Government of India to develop a semiconductor and display ecosystem in India?
I think this is wonderful. GoI has done its part and the States are vying in healthy competition. I think it is time for the private sector to step up and make breakthroughs for Indian companies to play globally in the semiconductor ecosystem.
6) Apart from OSAT/ATMP, which of those segments like Silicon fabs or compound semiconductor fabs or display fabs or design can we expect Tata electronics to be a part of or grow further in the near future?
I am working on OSAT for Tata. But I believe it is natural to get into up and down the supply chain. Recently, the pandemic has exposed flaws in the current supply chain where there are too many touchpoints and too many dependencies. There is a drive to be more vertically integrated within a company or within a geography or meaningful partnerships.
This would help stabilise the supply chain. I think Tata and many companies in India will be able to provide a more stable supply chain.
7) Will that be through a consortium or as a company? If, as a company, will those be in partnership with a global player or an attempt to indigenously develop them?
As I mentioned, India is behind. We should be open and aggressively seek partnerships with leaders in this field. The good news is that with the announcements of policies by GoI, there is a lot more buzz from leading manufactures to come to India. I am sure it would open up for consortiums, and partnerships among others.
8) In general, you have been a strong proponent of developing talent and big businesses in India itself as compared to only looking for MNCs to come and open facilities in India. What are your views on the relative ease versus difficulty, pros and cons for both approaches?
MNCs are great at what they do in identifying markets, designing products etc. Manufacturing has been outsourced to mainly Asian players. For India, it is a low-hanging fruit to get into manufacturing. MNCs would help us in manufacturing. I don't see them as competition, but as partners. I don't think it is wise to ask TI, ST Micro, Infineon etc, to come to India to set up ATMP. I think Indian companies should create value propositions to MNCs in manufacturing to make them successful.
In 10 years, we should have large world-class Indian semiconductor manufacturing companies.
9) Is there anything that you will be able to share about the futuristic Telecom and data communication business plans of Tata? For example, there have been reports of Tata taking a stake in Tejas Networks — how far has that progressed and does Tata have big plans for being part of 5G or 6G?
Things don't happen in a vacuum. There are a lot of moving parts. Tata is large and diverse. It is for us to take advantage and bring value to group companies. I see tremendous synergy within Tata group companies and also other Indian/Foreign companies in India.
10) How do you compare the situation when you started your entrepreneurial journey and now? Has the ease of doing "big businesses" improved in India, especially for domestic players? Which of India's announced plans for the future do you think will work and what more do you suggest?
India has come a long way in ease of doing business. After what IT did to transform, India is poised to take on technology. This is big and we should think big. The recent policy announcement of India Semiconductor Mission is a tremendous step towards a technology leadership we can take in the next 10 to 20 years.
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