Student’s research lands $27,000 grant

School of Business PhD candidate Dawood Abugharbieh is receiving international recognition for his groundbreaking research, which brings together Portland State’s longstanding emphasis on sustainability issues and the city’s role as a major hub for semiconductor manufacturing.

Abugharbieh received a $27,000 grant from Tata Consultancy Services, an international information technologies consulting company based in Bombay, to pursue his dissertation research on the relationship between sustainable manufacturing processes and purchasing behavior in the semiconductor industry.

“There are a list of attributes in the manufacturing process, both industry-specific, such as certain chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing, and more general ones, like water and electricity, that are related to ecological issues. We’re trying to find the link between these attributes and purchasing behavior within the industry,” Abugharbieh said.

Abugharbieh’s research is the first attempt to understand how the impact on their ecological footprint affects the likelihood of a company like Intel or Tektronix to buy one kind of manufacturing equipment over another.

“The model for this kind of research comes from architecture, from green building practices,” said Robert Harmon, professor of marketing and technology management at the School of Business and chair of Abugharbieh’s dissertation committee. “Green building is based on the idea that sustainable design saves money in the long run. This is an extension of that model into semiconductors.”

Abugharbieh collected his data with the help of two major global semiconductor industry associations, SEMI and SIA, via a web site survey.

“I put together the survey, and then five dissertation advisers gave suggestions on how to improve it,” Abugharbieh said. “Then I interviewed representatives from 13 stakeholders, including government, NGOs, academics, business and the community for input on the survey.”

Survey responses came in from all over the United States, Japan, Europe, Taiwan and Korea.

“We’re still in the analysis stage, so the findings will not be public until June,” Abugharbieh said.

According to Abugharbieh, the value of his research is twofold. There is a value to suppliers of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, because the data will help indicate what sustainability issues they should pay attention to, and what changes will create the desired return on their investment. Then there is the value to the semiconductor industry itself.

“There’s a huge industry interest in this kind of research,” Harmon said, who has worked with high-tech companies for 20 years. “There is good reason in terms of cost, in terms of product, in terms of design and in terms of customer value for the industry to pursue this. That’s the concept of value engineering, that you can reduce costs by improving design, materials and process, and by increasing customer benefit.”

The semiconductor industry tends to be more concerned with issues of sustainability and social responsibility than many other industries.

“In my opinion, the semiconductor industry is pretty progressive and highly educated. As a group, they feel special, and they want to be leaders in sustainability and education,” Abugharbieh said.

Harmon concurred. “My general sense is that the semiconductor industry is interested in reducing its ecological footprint.”

This might explain why Tata Consultancy Services, which reported consolidated income revenues of a $2.24 billion in 2004-05, was interested in supporting Abugharbieh’s research. TCS is part of India’s Tata Group, a 138-year-old collection of businesses ranging from automotive and tech products to watches, steel and Tetley Tea. In the IT chain, TCS is the link above the semiconductor manufacturers, consulting on a range of technology issues. TCS is one of the major consulting firms for business process outsourcing, or relocating jobs overseas to reduce costs.

“We’re happy to be working with Dawood on this project,” said Michael McCabe, director of communications for TCS in North America. “TCS has a history of working with academic institutions, first in India, and now in the U.S. Supporting academic research is a big part of who we are.”

Other U.S universities to receive support from TCS include Stanford, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon and Georgia Tech.

“Portland, and the Northwest in general, is a big market for TCS,” McCabe said. “Working with Portland State seemed to make sense because of our interest in academic research and because of our growing business market there, as well as the focus on sustainability. TCS is into being sustainable and socially responsible. The Tata Group is the pioneer in India for corporate social responsibility. So this is an interesting and relevant area for research for TCS.”

Partnering with a large international corporation will also help bring more attention to Abugharbieh’s research.

“I like the idea of working with Tata on the PR [public relations] side, as well,” Harmon said. “They’re a huge international company, so they could make a huge impact.”

According to Harmon, it is reasonably common for private companies to fund academic research studies. Contributing grants toward research does not buy the companies any special access or influence on results.

“We meet with Tata quarterly, to give them briefings and inform them of our progress, but just like everyone else, they will see the final results in June,” Abugharbieh said.

Abugharbieh’s research grant from TCS could also help other Portland State students secure funding for their research.

“Sustainability is one of the major thrusts at Portland State, so getting one of these early grants is pretty cool,” Harmon said. “This is a study that others will build on and cite. We have another student doing research on renewable energy, and we stand a good chance of getting funding for that study. Success builds on success.”

When asked about possible funding relationships between TCS and Portland State in the future, McCabe said, “I can’t rule anything out. We’re always looking for opportunities to help the communities where we work, so I can’t rule out future funding for research or another undertaking at Portland State.”

Abugharbieh refused to express any hopes about the outcome of his research. “This research will create a starting point. There’s no good or bad outcome here, only a scientific outcome that is focused on inquiry, not advocacy. It will be a base for further research. This is pretty fresh.”