US semiconductor industry has a lot of ideas about where CHIPS Act money should go

Outsourced assembly and test a key missing part of supply chain, and foreign entities aren't beyond the pale

Stakeholders in the semiconductor industry have a clear-eyed view of the changes that should happen in order for the US to rebuild a leading position in chip manufacturing, and a wide-ranging approach addressing the entire supply chain is needed.

This is according to a report published by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which highlights the responses received from industry to a request for information (RFI) to inform programs enabled by the recently passed CHIPS Act.

NIST's report [PDF], "Incentives, Infrastructure, and Research and Development Needs to Support a Strong Domestic Semiconductor Industry", summarizes more than 250 responses from various sectors of the semiconductor supply chain. This includes developers of design tools, materials suppliers, and other manufacturers.

The respondents indicated that they favored all parts of the CHIPS Act programs to be closely coordinated in order to deliver the maximum impact. A key factor in this should be collaboration and coordination between bodies such as the National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC) and the National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program (NAPMP), plus other existing technology hubs and institutions.

And while much attention has focused on the building of new fabrication plants to make cutting edge advanced chips, such as those Intel is building in Ohio, respondents indicated that the US Commerce Department should support a diverse set of technologies across node sizes, ranging from leading edge to more mature technologies, in order to deliver a more cohesive program.

This perhaps reflects the fact that many of the supply chain issues affecting industries have been due to a lack of investment in older manufacturing processes that are used to produce low-key components such as power management controllers, which are nevertheless essential to building a complete product.

However, it was also noted that leading-edge nodes and compound semiconductor nodes (using Silicon Carbide and Gallium Nitride) are key areas of focus needed to maintain future competitiveness.

Respondents also identified packaging and outsourced semiconductor assembly and test (OSAT) as key missing pieces of the supply chain within the US, showing that stakeholders are aware that simply making more chips is not the answer.

Interestingly, respondents overall felt that foreign ownership should not disqualify an applicant from financial incentives, with the strength of the applicant's US operations, and the sustainability of the proposal considered more important. Smaller organizations, however, tended to back funding preferences for US companies.

Other feedback from stakeholders was that programs under the authority of the CHIPS Act should be engineered to require cost-sharing and matching of funding with investment from private capital. Respondents also strongly recommended the coupling of funding with federal tax credits, under the Facilitating American-Built Semiconductors (FABS) Act, to maximize the impact on the US semiconductor ecosystem.

On the research and development side, respondents said that the NSTC should be a neutral non-profit entity, with a governance structure that should include a board of directors and technical advisory council, with joint decision making coming from partners and stakeholders.

The report notes that building up a skilled workforce will be a key requirement for all sectors of the semiconductor ecosystem, and that respondents recommended taking steps to increase the number of students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career paths and the semiconductor field specifically, as well as improving partnerships and collaborations between training institutions and employers.

This included moves such as increasing funding for grants specific to semiconductor programs through the NSF Fellows program or the Manufacturing Engineering Education Grant (MEEG) program, or else an incentive program for community colleges and universities to expand course offerings and training.

Some in the academic world are already ahead of the game on this, with a group of midwestern research colleges and universities announcing an initiative last month to address requirements for research and a skilled workforce in the semiconductor industry.

Other concerns noted in the NIST report inevitably cover issues such as IP and governance over the resources of the NSTC.

Specifically, the NSTC will need to balance its role as a public entity with the mission of ensuring innovation, and so most respondents felt that the NSTC should retain rights only when IP has been developed jointly with facility staff, for example, and that background IP (BIP) brought to the facility by a participant is the participant’s property, but participants must disclose all pertinent BIP.

Respondents also felt that the NSTC should focus on a clear national objective with a laid-out technology roadmap, and look at collaboration models developed by entities such as Manufacturing USA and NY Creates.

The respondents were largely in favor of having the NSTC collaborate with overseas institutions, including sharing roadmaps, joint development teams, and dividing the research focus among the collaborators, which would benefit the industry as a whole and avoid duplication of effort. However, some felt that to do so would risk losing the NSTC's US focus. ®

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