Manufacture or Bust How the US and the EU Need to Prioritize Semiconductor Manufacturing for Tomorrow

Everything is a smart device in today’s hyper-agile and technology-focused market. In fact, they’ve developed new terms just to describe the growing interconnectivity of all our devices: IoT, or Internet-of-Things. Anything, from your watch to your car, can be interconnected to better serve an increasing need for efficiency and productivity in our daily lives.

What was once an analog world is now slowly turning into one that is highly dependent on little pieces of silicon that power and transmit information much faster than anything we’ve developed in decades past. But despite the world’s growing dependence on semiconductors as an almost utility requirement in most everyday products, their supply and manufacturing are largely controlled by a much smaller group of companies concentrated in different parts of Asia.

With technological developments only likely to continue shifting upwards exponentially, the United States and Europe can’t afford to fall behind on their own developing, manufacturing, and processing of semiconductors within their own markets.

The Semiconductor Market Today

Currently, semiconductor demand continues to be a hot-button issue for governments, businesses, and the global economy at large. Already the global chip demand has snowballed into a global chip shortage, with consumers finding it hard to even purchase new cars due to their reliance on these little silicon bits.

In fact, this current shortage of chips has directly impacted any product that actively utilizes the technology in key component parts of their makeup. Computer components, cell phones, and even heated car seats are seeing a massive constraint in manufacturing due to the lack of semiconductors available in the market.

As with any shortage, it’s important to understand who the major players are in play. As of writing, three countries dominate the space of semiconductor manufacturing: China, Taiwan, and South Korea. With so much key manufacturing concentrated in a small supplier base, fluctuations in global conditions can rapidly spiral into a full-blown crisis.

Case in point, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has all but imploded the supply chain of most consumer goods as more people spike up demand with disposable income unspent during months in lockdown. Geo-political tensions can cause issues with supply as well, as we saw in the US-China trade war during the Trump administration. Even what was thought to be distinct phenomena, such as the cryptocurrency boom in 2020, caused an influx in demand for graphics cards which further exacerbated a demand level for semiconductors that reached a boiling point.

Semiconductor Manufacturing Critical Success Factors

With semiconductors being as ubiquitous as it is in almost every respect in the modern economy, it’s worth asking why the manufacturing of such an important commodity is left in the hands of so few. Semiconductors, despite being thinner than human hair, are notoriously hard to manufacture in even the most advanced industries. The entire process requires extremely clean working environments, precision robotics, and expert management to properly handle and execute to precision each time.

Below are a few characteristics of semiconductor manufacturing that can lead to a sustained competitive manufacturing process to be developed in the United States, Europe, and other regions that are looking to capture the ever-present need for tech.

R&D Investment

The first thing that will need to be locked down for any business or region looking to develop capabilities in semiconductor manufacturing is to have the capital flexibility to invest in research and development of the manufacturing facility in the first place.

As much as a single grain of dust can largely affect the intricate designs found on a semiconductor, which requires most facilities to not just have the proper robotics in place but the key building amenities which allow for product integrity throughout the development process.

Materials Innovations and Access to Inputs

Semiconductors are key components in most of our everyday gadgets and smart devices, but even these require raw materials to be fully built. Enter silicon, one of the most abundant materials on the earth and found in virtually any country with the capability to mine it.

Yet China remains one of the world’s largest producers of silicon, bypassing the United States (and the rest of the world) in combined output. This means that without access to these silicon reserves, it’s likely China will continue to leverage their position as the semiconductor leader.

But the United States isn’t without a dog in the fight, with some of the best forms of silicon being found in the purest quartz, which coincidentally is found in a quarry near Spruce Pine in North Carolina.

Labour and Technological Management

Labour has been a consistent talking point in different industries, and semiconductor manufacturing is no stranger to the conversation. The current market structures have long necessitated the human hand in the development and manufacturing of these wafer-thin chips, which are now in short supply.

But the newest technologies demand the best semiconductors, which will require less hands-on work and more technologically assisted processes to better ensure development according to extremely delicate specifications. As such, the latest automation robotics in the handling and development of semiconductors will be needed alongside the right talent that can best manage these machines.

Manufacturing of these chips remain extremely complex, and the merger of these two methods of production will be key in gaining a competitive advantage for the future.

Cross-Industry Collaboration & Development of Distribution

No industry flourishes on the shoulders of a single entity, and as such, the United States and Europe will need to develop different aspects of the market to better support the manufacturing of semiconductors as a whole.

Already research is being done to better standardize processes in semiconductor manufacturing to allow for more efficiencies as well as adoption by new companies that might not have access to the most cutting-edge informational resources.

Regulatory Support

Lastly, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the support from regulatory and government bodies in the development and manufacturing of semiconductors in the first place. Perhaps a little late to the party, but the US finally ratified the CHIPS Act, which further bolsters the capability of the country to develop its own semiconductor manufacturing. Earlier in 2022, United States President Joe Biden and Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger had announced the launch of a new “mega-site” for semiconductor manufacturing in Ohio, an investment that could easily reach $100 billion in needed capital.

Even the EU is looking to get into the action by introducing their own "EU Chips Act", with a projected flow of as much as EUR 45 billion to be used for research, pilot projects, start-ups, and even mega-factories that prioritize state-of-the-art semiconductor manufacturing by the year 2030. It's an audacious goal for sure, but it goes to show that these government bodies are willing and prioritizing chip manufacturing for the future.

The Role of AI in Semiconductor Manufacturing

With all this being said, the rise of automation will continue to play a key role in semiconductor manufacturing as designs on delicate chips become more and more intricate, requiring more layers and even more technical expertise to develop.

Small ripples are already happening from both current players and new entrants in the market. If the US and Europe want to catch up with China, they need to start making moves to make up for the lost time. Look towards development in key aspects of R&D, Materials Innovations and Investments, Collaboration Across Industries, and especially Manufacturing through new and efficient practices, all while being supported by proper governmental resources.

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Published on 

Dec 13, 2022


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