The United States has lost significant ground manufacturing semiconductors in recent years.
The same day that the Federal Trade Commission sued to block a $40 billion merger between two American semiconductor companies, the House Science Committee held a hearing on the topic of reinvigorating the U.S. semiconductor industry.
The supply chain woes of the industry have been on full display during the pandemic. From automobiles to cellphones, smart household appliances to electronic toys and games, consumers have discovered things that they want to purchase are simply unavailable, whether because of shipping bottlenecks, semiconductor plants closed by climate events or workers sheltering at home, among other factors.
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of U.S. chip manufacturers. In 1996, 37% of the world’s semiconductors were manufactured in the United States; by 2019, it had fallen to 12%. That statistic and other equally depressing figures were often cited by the witnesses called to testify at the hearing.
“In 2000, more than 25 companies built chips – now it’s three, and Intel is the only one left in the U.S.,” said Ann Kelleher, executive vice president and general manager of technology development for Intel Corp. She pointed out that Asian countries have been investing in manufacturing for decades.
“Yesterday [Dec. 1] a conference was announced on the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act,” or USICA, said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member. “It will contain significant funding for the CHIPS Act … Time is in short supply to address our future chip needs.”
The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America, or CHIPS Act, was passed with bipartisan support by Congress last year. It authorized the creation of incentives for the semiconductor industry to build manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and authorized a National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC), but it did not include funding. USICA includes $52 billion to fund CHIPS Act provisions.
Manish Bhatia, executive vice president of global operations for Micron Technology Inc., said Congress should focus on three things to bolster U.S. based semiconductor production: research and development, manufacturing, and workforce development.
Mung Chiang, executive vice president and dean of the Purdue University Engineering College, pointed out that the industry will need more than 42,000 new engineers over the next five years. “Some specific steps include revising and reinvigorating the [academic curriculum], and expanding scholarships and fellowships,” he said.
The director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Michael Witherell, said the Department of Energy’s network of national laboratories can help meet these challenges. The United States “has built large-scale world-class research facilities [that] can help meet the current challenges,” he said. “These laboratory assets can be [enlisted], with appropriate investment.”
Witherell noted that the laboratories are actively involved in pursuing the administration’s climate change policies – which includes R&D on making semiconductors more efficient. Efficiencies can be gained in both the manufacturing process and in how the semiconductors actually operate. “Energy efficiency is a scientific and technical challenge that falls squarely within the DOE space,” he said.
All of the witnesses said that federal funding is crucial, even though it may take decades for the investment to pay off.
When Micron Technology makes a decision to expand a current facility or to build a new one, “they aren’t five-year decisions, they’re 30- or 40-year decisions,” he said. “We need to move with urgency now, even though it will take years for [the investments] to contribute. … In order to really future-proof [the U.S. industry], we need to get our customers oriented toward new technologies,” balancing customers’ purchase of legacy chips against their need to migrate to new solutions.
Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) asked about the barriers to entry for start-ups in the semiconductor field. “I represent the Research Triangle area, and I’ve seen how these shortages have affected” them, she said. “How can we grow the semiconductor start-up system, and do we have the time for it?”
Witherell said the national laboratories “have systems for doing start-ups from the laboratories, [though] a university is a much wider space for this.”
Purdue’s Chiang added, “We have small enterprises, including start-ups, [but] the time to generate returns to investors is longer for the semiconductor industry … Most investors are not patient enough. Part of the solution could be to encourage more university-industry collaboration.”
Bhatia suggested that rather than create a single NSTC, the CHIPS Act funding should be used to create several regional centers, each focusing on a specific element of the technical challenges, such as materials, advanced packaging or memory.
Kelleher noted, “Intel has leadership in packaging and all our [work] is done here in the U.S. We really believe establishing a center around advanced packaging” will not only give the U.S. design capability but manufacturing capability, as well.
During questioning, several representatives asked what it would take for a semiconductor company to invest in their own states.
“We’re doing everything we can to bring some of our manufacturing knowhow and land” to companies’ attention, said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Penn.), who represents a district around Pittsburgh. “What competitive advantage did you see in the Southwest, and how can we [compete]?”
“Our investment in the Southwest started 30 or 40 years ago, and once you start that investment you tend to stay there” and expand, Kelleher answered. “We have very stringent criteria – for given sites at any given state, it’s the land itself, with many factors considered – site readiness, infrastructure, utilities. It’s also supply chain support in a given area, also the workforce available in a given area, from unskilled workers to very skilled. And the states, how much they work with business to make it easy.”
Bhatia added, “It’s infrastructure and workforce. The supply chain complexity is incredible, and only getting more complex. A second’s interruption in electricity” can be disastrous. “It’s the availability of universities and colleges, and the overall industrial backdrop.”