Washington pours $3B into silicon smackdown to outpackage Asia

Uncle Sam rolls up sleeves to onshore work and protect supply chain

The US has earmarked $3 billion in funding it hopes will drive US leadership in advanced packaging technologies, seen as a key part of the future semiconductor industry.

As part of the CHIPS for America funding, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said there will be approximately $3 billion available for a National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program (NAPMP) to research advanced semiconductor packaging.

An "initial funding opportunity" for this program is expected to be announced in early 2024, it said. This will form part of the research and development efforts funded by the Department of Commerce, which oversees the CHIPS for America scheme.

NIST Director Laurie E Locascio said in a statement that the goal of the investment is to ensure the US will be able to both manufacture and package the world's most sophisticated chips within a decade.

"This means both onshoring a high-volume advanced packaging industry that is self-sustaining, profitable, and environmentally sound, and conducting the research to accelerate new packaging approaches to market," Locascio said.

In a paper [PDF] detailing the aims of NAPMP, NIST says advanced packaging includes the ability to integrate multi-component assemblies (such as multiple silicon dies or chiplets) with large numbers of interconnects to achieve "a degree of integration that blurs the line between chip and package."

However, the paper also notes that the vast majority of advanced packaging capacity currently resides in Asia, typically in Taiwan. Because of this, the paper highlights a need to develop domestic advanced packaging which is "cost effective and efficient" to enable "semiconductors that are made in the US to be packaged in the US" and maintain American global competitiveness and supply chain resilience.

The NAPMP will make "strategic" investments in areas including design and simulation tools; manufacturing equipment; and research and development into fields relevant to advanced packaging, such as materials and substrates, a chiplet ecosystem, novel memory, and photonics, the paper says.

These investments will also include research programs for core technologies that can be scaled up to high-volume manufacturing, with an Advanced Packaging Piloting Facility (APPF) to support this, plus workforce training programs.

The first funding, to be announced early in 2024, will go toward materials and substrates, according to NIST. Additional announcements, including regarding the packaging piloting facility, will follow.

It isn't clear which companies or organizations will benefit from this funding, but Intel is a likely candidate, although the company is already scheduled to receive billions from CHIPS Act funding towards the building of its Arizona and Ohio fabrication plants.

The Santa Clara outfit recently detailed development work it is doing towards glass substrates for multi-chiplet semiconductor packages.

Intel chief Pat Gelsinger declared earlier this year that Intel should receive more of the US government's subsidies because it also conducts R&D in the US, unlike some rivals.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's TSMC was said to be in talks with Arizona about expanding its existing investment in fabrication plants in the state to include a packaging plant, which could make it a potential recipient of funds as well.

The importance of packaging can be seen in the recent shortages of Nvidia's top-of-the-line GPUs such as the A100 or H100, which were at least partly attributed to a lack of advanced packaging capacity by TSMC, which manufactures the silicon.

TSMC last year announced the 3DFabric Alliance, created to help chip design partners produce chiplet-based products using silicon stacking and advanced packaging technologies.

NIST said that NAPMP is one of four CHIPS for America programs that are focused on R&D to ensure that chip manufacturing, including the new fabs funded by the CHIPS Act, can deliver cutting-edge tech.

The program will work closely with the others, according to the Department of Commerce's CHIPS Research and Development Director, Lora Weiss. "Together, these powerhouse research programs will support technology innovation so that semiconductor manufacturers will choose to invest in America and our onshore packaging capabilities," she said. ®

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