Making the next generation of computer chips demands the care, on an industrial scale, of making a gourmet meal. The finest ingredients, techniques, tools and, of course, the sharpest minds, must whip together something transformative. In kitchens missing just one, the meal falls short.
In that regard, the Department of Commerce will soon command a feast of sorts, doling out $11 billion for research and development under the CHIPS Act to revive America’s sluggish chipmaking industry—now making only 12 percent of chips worldwide. In passing CHIPS, America asserted a bold desire to return to the forefront of chipmaking. Between desire and doing, however, lies a profound gap. It will not be easily spanned.
The CHIPS Act funding is a lot of money, but numbers hardly guarantee success. Chipmaking is an almost incomprehensibly precise, difficult and expensive business. Ensuring the U.S. has a seat at the table with the world’s leading makers will take innovation and collaboration of epic proportions.
Lowering the barriers to participation and funding—inviting the sharpest minds using the finest ingredients and the best equipment — is critical to the future of America’s CHIPS-inspired semiconductor future. The nearly $600 billion global semiconductor chip industry makes more than a trillion chips every year, found in everything from cars to coffeemakers. A “more-is-merrier” approach would create a vibrant and fast-moving network of innovation to produce the breakthroughs needed to succeed.
So far, a lot of attention has instead been focused on the biggest, and often most slow-moving, players in industry. America thrives on innovation, yet many of the most creative minds at smaller companies and universities have been shut out by the field’s notoriously high costs of research and development, and by lack of access to the expensive tools and facilities (often called “fabs”) needed for prototyping. As any high-end chef will tell you, you can’t create something transformative if you don’t have a kitchen in which to cook.
There are two ways the U.S. can allot these R&D funds. First, it can fall back on the “celebrity chef” approach, placing a few big bets on a handful of names hoping for a magical breakthrough—a risky proposition. Or we can build more kitchens and invite more chefs to start cooking, placing many smaller bets on the most innovative minds to craft a collaborative restaurant row of chipmaking innovation where the steak, and not the sizzle, is the goal.
First, we’ll need more kitchens. We must build shared experimental facilities where researchers from industry and academia work together. This would cultivate research communities of practice that unite top engineers in a common purpose and open doors to innovators nationwide. These technology centers can range from enhanced university fabs run by experienced engineers to industry-scale facilities that showcase product-worthiness of new ideas on a large scale.
Second, we must build “digital twin” computational models that can emulate the entire fabrication processes, including specifics of process tools and process conditions. Digital twins will allow researchers to quickly evaluate options and accelerate process and device technology discovery. By collecting large amounts of data, AI models can assist humans in fine-tuning delicate fabrication processes and automatically detect anomalies during manufacturing to improve production yield and quality. Currently unthinkable, such digital models will be America’s ticket to leadership in semiconductor technology and manufacturing that is less dependent on humans looking at spreadsheets to make decisions.
Inherent in this vision is the key role of data sharing among the entire community. The open-access facilities would be networked nationwide to distribute data freely among the entire community, all while protecting proprietary information. The impact of this digital twin would grow exponentially as the research community expands and as new knowledge feeds innovation.
Ultimately, such a network would lower the cost for research and development for all players, reducing risk and bringing innovative ideas to market faster. A shared prototyping environment could propel production of all kinds of chips—logic, memory, storage and specialty technologies—the way a well-equipped kitchen can turn out diverse cuisines in a single night.
All of this talk of improving access, however, overlooks one more critical factor of success: the availability of talent. Greater access means nothing if we do not have exquisitely skilled chefs eager to step into the kitchen. We must nurture a healthy industry with healthy profit margins that supports career growth, attractive work conditions and suitable work-life balance to entice this next generation of engineers. Such talent does not grow on trees; it takes a decade or more for a high-school graduate to earn a Ph.D. If we want to be a part of a leading industry 10, 20, 30 or 100 years down the road, we must recruit and train new talent now.
The aspirations of the CHIPS Act are high. Regaining global leadership in chipmaking will not be easy, but it is within reach for a nation as capable and as motivated as the U.S. The recipe couldn’t be simpler: Train the best and brightest. Create an open and collaborative ecosystem. Put cutting-edge tools in their hands. Allow everyone to participate and share data. Then, enjoy a delectable lab-to-fab four-course meal. Bon appétit.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.