As the global semiconductor shortage continues to plague key industries, companies, governments and other organizations are searching for ways to alleviate it.
In early August, President Joe Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, with the hope of boosting domestic semiconductor production. In January, Intel announced plans for two new semiconductor factories in Ohio. And earlier this month, Notre Dame partnered with 11 midwestern universities to help bolster semiconductor research and production in the U.S.
Semiconductors, commonly referred to as chips, are most commonly silicon pieces and essential components of items ranging from smartphones and cars to computers and medical diagnostic equipment, according to electrical engineering professor Alan Seabaugh.
“It’s just everywhere you turn,” Seabaugh said.
After Intel announced its plans to build a chip plant in Ohio, Ohio State University organized a meeting with the 12 universities that now form the partnership, Seabaugh said.
Universities included in the partnership include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Cincinnati.
Seabaugh said the partnership will allow for collaboration on research and provide research and employment opportunities to students in the region, as the universities hope to address the national issue.
“When we run research groups for various topics, we might collaborate with people from all over the country, but why not collaborate more in the region?” Seabaugh said.
The U.S. accounts for just 12% of the chips produced in the world; China and Taiwan make up a large majority of the remainder.
“It’s really kind of tragic that we’ve let [U.S. chip production] get that low, because you can see from a point-of-view of keeping supply chains open, something can happen somewhere in the world and then, all of the sudden, people can’t sell their cars or complete some product that they have,” Seabaugh said.
While Seabaugh expressed alarm at the low percentage of chips produced in the U.S., business analytics professor and supply chain expert Kaitlin Wowak said there are some benefits to outsourcing a large swath of chips.
Wowak said it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to catch up to Taiwan and China in chip production because of their massive manufacturing capacity. Additionally, she said a diverse supply base helps diversify risk in the event of occurrences, such as natural disasters, that can hinder production.
At the beginning of the pandemic, companies stopped ordering chips because of the uncertainty of their demand, Wowak said. In turn, suppliers cut their chip production. However, the pandemic increased demand for products such as laptops because of the increased use of apps like Zoom for meetings, which brought the demand for chips back up.
For this reason, manufacturers experienced a backlog of their products because they had to place orders for the chips. This backlog has continued and does not appear to have an end in sight, Wowak said.
“People would like to think that the chip shortage is hopefully going to be over soon,” Wowak said. “I’ve seen projections that it could go into 2023-2024, depending on the demand for certain items.”
Wowak said the chip shortage is obviously reflected in the car industry, which is experiencing soaring prices.
With the partnership among the universities, Seabaugh said he hopes the U.S, and especially the Midwest, can mobilize around increasing domestic production of semiconductors and begin to remedy the shortage. He expects the new Intel plant in Ohio to eventually result in the creation of around 40,000 jobs as semiconductor companies look to expand to the Midwest.
“We can really talk about having this become sort of the Silicon Valley in the ‘Silicon Heartland,’” Seabaugh said. “This is the new, new space for students to really consider having a career and raising a family.”
Seabaugh said the semiconductor industry is not only important and exciting, but also presents opportunities for students and employees in all sorts of fields.
“It’s not just electrical engineers, and not just computer scientists, but mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, physicists, chemists,” he said. “All these people qualify, but they don’t probably know about this kind of career and what it would be like to work in this space.”
Seabaugh teaches a course called “Integrated Circuit Fabrication,” in which students build a small silicon chip which plays the University fight song. The course was recently opened up to students outside of the electrical engineering program, with the goal of exposing as many students as possible to careers in the industry.
“We want to cooperate to support this onshoring of semiconductor manufacturing, which is a problem needing a solution,” he said.