Should the UK look towards advanced semiconductor development?

09-04-2021 | By Sam Brown

Recent events around the world have demonstrated the importance of semiconductors, but shockingly the UK has almost no IC foundries. What semiconductor plants currently exist in the UK, why does the UK not manufacture ICs, and should it?

Why manufacturing semiconductors is critical?

A nations ability to gather its own resources and produce its own goods is essential to the defence of that nation. Furthermore, the ability for a country to produce its own goods allows it to engage in warfare with other nations as it does not rely on those nations for resources or products. This is why the production of steel and coal was spread across Europe so that the nations of Europe could never war with each other again (as of WW2). 

However, as technology progresses, developments and objects that would not normally be considered critical or important become important. For example, the importance of radios and vehicles dramatically changed after WW1 due to their ability to provide instantaneous communication and ability to carry large amounts of goods in a short time. 

Fast forward to the past few decades, the transistor has risen in importance significantly from a device that could replace valves in a radio set to powering the most advanced systems ever created by mankind. However, the past year has demonstrated just how reliant modern society is on the semiconductor, and how many nations are not properly prepared.

The need for nations to develop their own semiconductors comes from a whole range of issues. For example, relying on outside nations to produce devices can leave a nation open to security threats from embedded malware and backdoors. Another example would be a refusal of trade which would significantly harm a nations ability to produce any device needing a semiconductor.

What semiconductors does the UK currently manufacture?

While the UK does have multiple manufacturing sites for semiconductor products, almost none are involved with the production of high-end ICs used in computers or IoT. Depending on the source used, the UK has between 10 to 18 semiconductor manufactures including Diodes Inc, Seagate, Plessey, and Bourns.

However, all but one of these sites are involved with either power products, sensors, or analogue systems. One site, PragmatIC, is the only site that produces IC technology for use in processors and controllers, but their products are specifically aimed at flexible electronics, and these are still in developmental stages.

Not one foundry in the UK operates to the same ability or capacity as those found in other places around the world such as TSMC, Intel, and Renesas. These sites can produce the latest mobile platform technologies, cellular chips, and processors for supercomputers. As such, the UK is 100% dependent on outside nations producing such devices which raises the question “should the UK consider creating its own ICs”?

Should the UK develop its own ICs?

There is no doubt that the UK should produce its own ICs. To start, the introduction of high-tech facilities would help introduce more higher-paying jobs. Furthermore, the construction of high-tech facilities would also provide construction jobs that themselves require a high degree of skill due to the environmental conditions needed.

The UK producing its own ICs would also provide a level of national security for itself and its allies including the US and EU. Devices manufactured by others nations (such as China), can be integrated with additional features unknown to the end-user such as backdoors. Therefore, using such devices in critical infrastructure (such as cellular networks) can open themselves to attack.

Manufacturing such ICs locally can also make a nation resistant to political and social events. For example, TSMC is one of the worlds leading manufacturing sites and is extremely important in the world IC supply chain. However, if China (which does not recognise Taiwanese independence), were to “reinstitute” government control, the resulting impact on the global IC market could be detrimental. The security and trust in devices could suddenly be lost while the technology developed by TSMC could be stolen. Manufacturing, or at least establishing a semiconductor foundry in the UK could provide defence technologies with a reliable source to develop their tech without interference from such world events.

Of course, establishing a semiconductor foundry with modern technological capabilities provides some challenges. The cost of such facilities is often in the billions, and the environmental concerns they bring can put local councils off from allowing their construction. However, it would be in the UK's interest to offer semiconductor manufacturers around the world the opportunity to site foundries in the UK.

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By Sam Brown