I started my professional career working at a semiconductor manufacturing facility in Florida in the late 1990s. I witnessed the investment of billions of USD in building and equipping of a “then” state-of-the-art semiconductor wafer fab. I was absolutely fascinated by the precision and rigor required to design and operate the most complex manufacturing system and made that research the focus of my MS thesis and PhD dissertation, and my early research career in academia. In 2001, that state of the art facility was completely abandoned and many other US fabs subsequently closed.
The US infrastructure plan calls for spending $50B on strengthening the US chip production and it’s important to remember that higher education should be a critical component of this plan. When we strayed away from manufacturing, our students lost interest in studying and researching manufacturing systems, including semiconductor. Academic and industry conferences used to regularly feature several session tracks dedicated to semiconductor manufacturing, which slowly dwindled down in the past decade.
US Semiconductor manufacturing fell relatively fast, but rebuilding it will be much slower. Though costly, ramping up the machine and fab capacities will be significantly easier than building up the talented workforce that will run it. In other words, adopting the “build it and they will come” strategy is short-sighted, since while building a fab can take an average of 2 years (TSMC built one in 11-months – probably a record), building a pipeline of talent will consume a good part of a decade. Funding and support should flow into the colleges and universities at earnest to sow the interest in our students and to build the new knowledge tracks it will take to educate them in this ever-changing frontier. Those overseeing the plan for the proposed National Semiconductor Center should engage promptly with universities, NOT ONLY to liaison on the science of semiconductors, but to plan for the broader workforce that will operate our national production capabilities.
Although it is my passion and profession to advocate for lean supply chains and a flat world, the pandemic and geopolitics exposed that supply chain resilience and redundancies are needed to overcome shortages. Local optimization is underrated!