Nikon Corp. and six other firms in the semiconductor sector plan to collaborate on the development of next-generation steppers, Nikon officials said Wednesday.

Steppers are key components used in chip fabrication.

The move is aimed at helping the firms maintain their technological edge over their U.S. rivals, who are promoting industrywide collaboration.

In April, the seven firms established the Electron Beam Projection Lithography Forum to share information and technology.

The firms expect to launch mass production of the new steppers in 2005, the officials said.

The announcement corroborates a report carried in the Wednesday morning edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily.

Nikon officials said the seven Japanese firms will jointly develop steppers using electron beam technology and will try to make the so-called EB steppers a global standard.

The six other companies that comprise the EPL Forum are Fujitsu Ltd., Hoya Corp., Hitachi Ltd., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., NEC Corp. and Semiconductor Leading Edge Technologies Ltd., a Yokohama-based development firm jointly set up in 1996 by 13 domestic chip makers.

Next-generation steppers are said to give the processing power of semiconductors a six-fold boost.

U.S. makers, including Intel Corp., are exploring different systems using ultraviolet light.

About 40 domestic and foreign makers of related materials and parts are expected to take part in the forum in the future.

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