Revitalizing US Chip Industry: DARPA’s Strategic Approach

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In a monumental move to revitalize America’s microelectronics manufacturing, tech executives, researchers, and government officials are converging in Seattle this week. Their mission is to brainstorm and strategize ways to breathe new life into the nation’s chip industry, leveraging a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revolutionize domestic microelectronics manufacturing, according to Mark Rosker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office.

The focus of this week’s summit is to delineate the specifics of a comprehensive $52 billion campaign aimed at enhancing research, development, training, and manufacturing within the chip industry. This colossal campaign is a direct offshoot of last year’s bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, with DARPA being just one of the many government agencies tasked with propelling this initiative forward. The summit also sees participation from representatives of the Commerce Department, U.S. Department of Energy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Science Foundation.

Revamping America’s Chip Industry: Tech Summit Seeks to Boost Microelectronics Manufacturing

Over 1,300 tech executives, researchers, and government officials convened in Seattle this week to discuss opportunities to rejuvenate America’s chip industry. The event, hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to detail a $52 billion campaign to advance research, development, training, and manufacturing in the chip industry.

A Herculean Effort to Realign Supply Chains

The summit is a significant event, following up on a series of Electronics Resurgence Initiative Summits before the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign is funded through last year’s bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, with DARPA as one of the key government agencies involved. Other representatives include the Commerce Department, the U.S. Department of Energy, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Science Foundation.

Senator Maria Cantwell highlighted the gravity of the effort taken to get the CHIPS and Science Act through Congress, as it aimed to realign the microelectronics supply chain back to the United States. The pandemic exposed the fragility of the industry’s supply chains, a sentiment echoed by Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger, who stated that the shortage of a $2 semiconductor could delay the shipment of a $30,000 car or a $15 million jet.

The Changing Chip Landscape

Current statistics reveal that only 12% of the world’s chips are manufactured in the U.S., in stark contrast to the 37% in the 1990s. Approximately 80% of today’s chips are produced in Asia, leaving America vulnerable when the pandemic disrupted trans-Pacific supply chains. The federal government’s chip initiative seeks to address this by incentivizing chipmakers to set up new manufacturing facilities in the U.S. This strategy appears to be effective, with Intel investing billions in new chip factories in Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio, and Oregon.

The industry is also witnessing innovations in chip design. DARPA’s director, Mark Rosker, announced the end of the era of the monolithic integrated circuit, citing not only the physical limit of packing more transistors onto a wafer but also industry economics. DARPA’s initiative, Next-Generation Microsystems and Manufacturing (NGMM), offers a path to transition from 2-D to 3-D microelectronics. The shift from mass-produced monolithic chips to ‘chiplets’ that can be assembled in a 3-D manner like Lego blocks for tailored applications is already underway.

Future Initiatives and Takeaways

The industry’s evolution doesn’t stop at silicon: DARPA is exploring ways to incorporate photonics and non-silicon electronics into these systems. The main reason for DARPA’s interest in enhancing the semiconductor industry stems from the U.S. military’s high demand for reliable chip supply that is resistant to foreign hackers and can withstand extreme environments.

Looking ahead, Senator Cantwell called for DARPA-funded researchers to join the National Semiconductor Technology Center and for stronger partnerships between DARPA and innovators in the semiconductor industry. She also proposed a government-wide workforce strategy for the chip industry, highlighting a recent NSF grant of $10 million to the University of Washington for semiconductor workforce development and research.

The summit reflects a significant shift in the U.S. government’s approach to the semiconductor industry, demonstrating a commitment to domestic manufacturing and a focus on advanced, resilient technologies. This focus on innovation, coupled with strategic partnerships, could prove crucial in securing the future of America’s chip industry.

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