“The global share of semiconductors manufactured in the United States has declined from 37 percent in 1990 to just 12 percent today, and 90 percent of leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing is now done outside the United States, mostly in Asia.”
This statement should be a wake-up call to anyone who cares about America’s competitiveness. Fortunately, the government is finally listening. The grim statistics were part of a letter from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, congratulating President Biden for signing the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. Kudos as well to the 64 U.S. senators and 243 state representatives who agreed, which is a sizable majority given today’s bitter political partisanship.
Considering that the U.S. gave birth to semiconductor technology, it’s both sad and ironic that the CHIPS Act was necessary. In 1947, Bell Laboratories scientists William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain demonstrated the world’s first transistor. Eleven years later, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit (IC) during a lonely summer shutdown. Fairchild Semiconductor’s Robert Noyce brought silicon to the IC party six months after that, while RCA employees Fred Heiman and Steven Hofstein introduced metal-oxide-semiconductors (MOS) in 1962.
There would be numerous other American electronics heroes over the coming decade, and by 1975, one-time Intel CEO Gordon Moore predicted the number of components per IC would double every year, a “law” that in many cases has mirrored American industry’s offshoring efforts.
COVID-19 and the resultant supply chain disruptions taught us many painful lessons, however, not the least of which is that the U.S. has lost much of its leadership in this and many other crucial sectors. CHIPS is a comprehensive framework that should reverse at least some of that domestic manufacturing loss, promising to invest more than $50 billion into semiconductor research, corporate investment tax credits, wireless communications technology, STEM education, workforce development, and similar high-tech industries well beyond microelectronics.
According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, semiconductor markets have boomed, with sales growing by more than 20 percent to about $600 billion in 2021. In addition, based on a range of macroeconomic assumptions, McKinsey suggests the industry’s aggregate annual growth could average from 6 to 8 percent a year up to 2030.
This growth is indicative of the various uses of semiconductors. For example, as discrete components, they are used in power devices, optical sensors, and light emitters, including solid-state lasers. They also have a wide range of current- and voltage-handling capabilities, as well as the ability to integrate into complex manufacturable microelectronic circuits.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. is one beneficiary of the CHIPS Act, although Gabriela Cruz Thompson, director of University Research Collaboration at Intel Labs, is quick to point out that the company has long had a significant domestic presence and was already moving in this direction before the White House initiative.
“In February of 2022, Intel announced it was constructing a new mega-site in Ohio and committed at that time to building two new factories there,” she said. “This expansion, together with the ones we’ve made recently in Arizona, Oregon, and New Mexico, was a response to market demand and the supply chain challenges that have been very evident over the last three years. That said, we are excited that the federal government will support Intel and others in our efforts to advance semiconductor technology and ensure that we have a robust supply chain here in the United States.”
Improving semiconductor technology is a wonderful thing, but it’s all for naught without trained workers. That’s why Intel—whose founders had strong connections to Berkeley and Stanford Universities—has long realized the importance of higher education in advancing the future of the company and indeed the industry overall. Enter the Semiconductor Research Corporation, a non-profit organization formed nearly four decades ago by members of Intel, IBM, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose goal is to fund research, develop intellectual property, and train the “elite workforce” needed to support the semiconductor industry.
With help from Intel and CHIPS, those efforts will only increase. Said Cruz Thompson, “This year, we are doubling up on our efforts to not only advance semiconductor manufacturing and further develop the top research ideas, but also support the workers we’ll need to staff all these factories. Why? Because the government wants the U.S. to produce 30 percent of the world’s ICs, and we don’t have the workforce needed to meet current manufacturing levels, let alone what we’ll require over the next decade or two. That’s job one right now.”
The Washington D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) agrees, commenting in a November press release that “manufacturing in the United States, including semiconductor manufacturing, depends on a strong workforce to innovate and succeed. Manufacturers continue to face a workforce crisis, with 76.1 percent of respondents to the most recent NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey indicating that they continue struggling to attract and retain sufficient talent.”
Such hurdles are expected to worsen over the coming years, added NAM Vice President of Infrastructure, Innovation, and Human Resources Robyn Boerstling, referencing a 2021 study conducted by consulting services giant Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute that indicated nearly half of the estimated 4.6 million available manufacturing jobs over the next decade could go unfilled.
“We strongly believe in this program and feel it is critical for our country’s economic security,” Boerstling declared. “Furthermore, we hope it is the beginning of a longer-term commitment to expand the potential of this particular manufacturing sector within the United States.”
As Intel suggested, achieving this will require skilled workers. Boerstling reiterated a comment from the press release mentioned earlier, stating that “job openings in manufacturing are highly technical, workers require specialized skills training and credentials to qualify for these jobs, and manufacturers need to attract a diverse set of workers with technical backgrounds in STEM disciplines.”
Detractors might wonder why Intel and NAM are placing so much emphasis on STEM education, particularly if the U.S. government will largely fund that emphasis. It’s a fair question. After all, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $500 million to STEM programs in fiscal year 2020. Local, state, and regional educational institutions have made (and continue to make) similar investments, as does the National Science Foundation (NSF) of Alexandria, Virginia. In fact, the CHIPS Act authorizes the NSF to spend $81 billion over five years on research and related activities, STEM education, and major research equipment.
Why do we need to spend additional taxpayer dollars when there’s already significant STEM support? Ask NSF Assistant Director James Moore. He’ll tell you there’s a dearth of employees prepared to fill the microelectronics area (among others) and that the nation is responding affirmatively to fill that void.
“The pandemic was a time of loss, of great challenge and upheaval for our nation,” Moore noted. “As such, this is one of the areas that our leadership in the federal government said we need to place major emphasis on as we recover from that disruption.
“When you think about innovation and the need for ongoing research and discovery. The United States has played a tremendous role; we’ve become a global leader in STEM,” Moore added, asserting the effort needs to accelerate.
“We as a country must improve and make additional investments while at the same time reaching out to communities that historically have not been cultivated for STEM opportunities, what our director calls ‘the missing millions.’ In my opinion, we’re at a critical juncture in our country’s history, which is why I like to think of the CHIPS and Science Act as the Sputnik of my generation.”
Richard Wahls might prefer to call it the Apollo of our generation. The mission integration manager for the Sustainable Flight National Partnership at NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Williamsburg, Va., he described a quirk of government legislation that someone reading the CHIPS Act might scratch their head over: What do unmanned aircraft systems, rocket propulsion test infrastructure, and the search for extraterrestrial life have to do with IC research and manufacturing?
As it turns out, nothing at all. “NASA gets reauthorized every so often, and rather than create stand-alone legislation for that, Congress simply made it part of the CHIPS Act,” he explained. “It doesn’t fund our activities or introduce any new projects or activities—those have to come through a separate appropriations process—but is simply part of a continuing resolution from earlier in the fiscal year.”
CHIPS-related or not, it’s important work. Sitting at the top of Wahls’ list is the Sustainable Flight National Partnership (SFNP), a NASA-supported program focused on sustainable “green aviation” and intended to help the aviation industry meet its net zero carbon emissions goals by 2050.
That target, Wahls said, is just around the corner. Developing the next generation of commercial transport vehicles lasts decades, especially if there’s radically advanced technology involved. Electrified powertrains, gas turbine engines with high-power-density cores, faster manufacturing methods for composite airframe structures—these are just a few of the projects that NASA and the SFNP are actively working on. “People seem to think NASA is all about space exploration, but we like to remind them that the first A stands for aeronautics.”
One government entity not currently concerned over congressional appropriations is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, Md., where Eric Lin, interim director of CHIPS for America, U.S. Department of Commerce, is working on some ambitious goals.
“One of the primary mandates of this legislation is to restore U.S. leadership in design, fabrication, and packaging of semiconductors,” he said. “That’s the incentivization piece of CHIPS, which accounts for the lion’s share of the $50 billion appropriated so far. But roughly $11 billion of that amount is going toward research and development, not to mention the funding for workforce development, DoD (Department of Defense) activities, a program with the Department of State that’s focused on critical security, and other provisions.”
NIST has a big job. Executing it will require assisting with and accelerating the development of a “domestic manufacturing ecosystem,” one that ensures the United States will have a long-term ability to discover and execute on transformative innovations for the semiconductor industry. Lin explained that these goals are similar to those of other organizations, such as IMEC, the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre in Belgium that has played an important role in this sector for nearly four decades.
The difference is that IMEC is designed primarily as a service organization, Lin noted, so is a place where manufacturing companies can execute research programs and move them into development and production. The United States can build on that core idea, he said, and leverage those capabilities to set the stage for the platforms of tomorrow as a national agenda. “We want the entire industry sector to participate, not just the largest companies.”
Lin anticipates that programs such as the National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC) will be key players in the years ahead. An independent public-private partnership, NSTC will help stitch together the ecosystem he just described, providing the industry with advanced prototyping facilities, advanced research capabilities, and bringing together those in the community with shared interests in working on the grand challenges for the future.
“I’m a research scientist by training,” Lin added. “I like this vision of projecting forward the types of systems we have learned to build and the practices that we know. Doing so will lead to the greatest innovation and fastest growth of commercial technology within the United States. So that’s our mandate. It’s a very tall order, and even with the significant investment from the taxpayer, there’s not likely to be enough funding to cover all the ambitions contained in this bill. Because of that, we will need to work very closely with industry and in partnership with the community if we’re to make the most of this investment.”
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