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No one has made more computer chips than Applied Materials chief Mike Splinter

Mike Splinter, executive chairman of Applied Materials

Above: Mike Splinter, executive chairman of Applied Materials

Image Credit: Applied Materials

Applied Materials executive chairman Mike Splinter received the computer chip industry’s highest honor tonight for his contributions to the industry and for making sure chips continue to drive technological progress for the $1 trillion electronics sector.

The 2013 Robert N. Noyce Award, named after Intel’s cofounder, is the highest honor the chip industry bestows on its members. Splinter, who has led the company for a decade, received the award at the Semiconductor Industry Association’s annual award dinner on Thursday evening in San Jose, Calif.

“I am humbled to be part of this industry. I still like thinking about what the next generation of transistors will be like. The inventions are going to be incredible,” Splinter said.

Splinter got the award not only for his role heading Applied Materials, the world’s largest maker of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, but also for his work at Applied’s biggest customer, Intel, where he helped pioneer innovations in chip manufacturing.

Among his contributions, he helped land the deal of the century in chip manufacturing equipment: Applied’s pending purchase of Tokyo Electron, the No. 2 company in the business. That deal, if approved, will make Applied Materials into the undisputed leader in the sector, with a combined market value of around $29 billion.

In an interview before the dinner, Splinter said he wasn’t retiring just yet, despite receiving the award. He laughed and said, “At least you don’t have to be dead to receive the award. Longevity is one reason. It really is quite pleasing.”

He said he looked back fondly on his career in the 1990s at Intel, where he helped Craig Barrett implement “Copy Exactly,” or Intel’s practice of creating one megafactory that made PC microprocessors and then repeating the exact conditions of that factory in other factories. That helped Intel quickly scale from prototype production to massive manufacturing levels in a short time. It was a huge bet that helped Intel cement its position as the world’s biggest chip maker.

Brian Toohey, the president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, described Splinter as a chip engineer at heart. He noted that Splinter designed his first transistor when he was 18. Splinter’s father had a TV shop, and Splinter built radios and fixed TVs with his father. Splinter said he grew up watching Star Trek.

“We have made these science fictions into science facts,” he said. “We are only at the start of it.”

He got his first job at Rockwell. He joined Intel in the 1970s, before it was a chip giant, and worked his way up the ranks. He took over as CEO of Applied Materials a decade ago, succeeding longtime CEO James Morgan.

In September, Splinter moved from chief executive to executive chairman. Gary Dickerson, previously president, was named the new CEO of Applied, an appointment that became effective Sept. 1. The two worked closely to make the merger happen.

“You have to have courage and be willing to take a risk, and this risk was worth taking,” Splinter said.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied makes the multimillion-dollar equipment that is used to manufacture semiconductor chips in multibillion-dollar factories. So the job of leading Applied Materials is a critical one for the future of Moore’s Law, the foundation of modern electronics. (Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel, predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on a chip will double every couple of years). Moore’s Law has held up for decades, and Applied’s advances are one reason that it has.

“I wrote a paper on the end of Moore’s Law in 1979,” he said. “It was brilliantly wrong.”

“When you think about contributions that are truly enabling, like our precision materials emphasis, there is an opportunity to expand our share,” Splinter added.

Applied’s market value, before the merger, is about $20 billion, compared to $119 billion for Intel. Splinter said he isn’t jealous about that, but he thinks that the equipment industry can improve its profits and its share of overall industry profitability.

Soon, chips will be made at dimensions where the circuits are 10 nanometers wide. The efficiencies gained with chip miniaturization are so vast that the chip industry has become the most productive industry in the world, Splinter said.

He said computing will continue to become more dense because “the world wants it and the world needs it.” Creativity and ingenuity will keep Moore’s Law going for a long time to come, he said.

Splinter has worked in chips for 40 years. More recently, he helped Applied Materials leverage its core technology and expand into the solar equipment manufacturing market. That market has had its ups and downs, but Splinter believed it was important for Applied to do.

Ajit Manocha, the chief executive of Globalfoundries and outgoing chairman of the SIA, said, “Mike has probably built more chips than anybody in the world.”

Splinter said, “I think my dad would think all of that tinkering was put to good use.”

Morgan, who received the same Noyce award as Splinter, was also at the dinner. “He’s done a great job in the industry,” Morgan said.

Quoting Noyce, Splinter said, “Go off and do something wonderful.” And with that, he got a standing ovation.

Applied Materials chip making equipment.

Above: Applied Materials chip making equipment.

Image Credit: Applied Materials

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