08-12-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Canada’s Semiconductor Council have finished an investigation into semiconductor production and its importance and has come to the same conclusion as many others. What will Canada be doing with the new report, why are semiconductors so important, and what could the future semiconductor industry look like?
In light of the global semiconductor shortage, Canada instructed the Semiconductor Council to create a report on how the drought has affected Canada and what action it should take. The report was released on the 23rd of November and outlined four main areas that need improvement: supply chain, manufacturing, specialisation, and innovation.
It was identified that the semiconductor supply chain of Canada is highly dependent on outside nations, and Canada produces very few of its own devices. Strengthening the supply chain to ensure that semiconductor parts are available can help Canada better manage semiconductor-based products. Furthermore, Canadian industries should also consider diversification when sourcing semiconductors so that failures in production and supply can be better mitigated.
Specialisation was also another area of interest in the report. Simply put, it has been recommended that Canada as a nation looks towards developing one specific technology so that it can become an industry leader. This would help improve exports and solidify the importance of Canadian technology worldwide. Such technologies would complement innovation, another area that the report discusses.
Overall, the report suggests that the Canadian government explores strategies deployed by other nations such as the US, UK, and China in the interest of economic stability and national security. Whether this will be done is a whole different matter as Canada is nowhere near as involved with semiconductors as nations such as the US. Furthermore, the significant initial investment needed to build foundries could make it challenging to start production.
Any engineer who has worked with the most basic circuits can tell you that semiconductors are fundamental to all electronics. The ability for semiconductors to integrate complex circuits into a single die measuring a few mm across allows for large designs to be made extremely compact. Furthermore, reducing the size of a circuit allows for more circuits to fit into a given area, increasing the capabilities of that design.
For example, the first computers would fill up entire rooms made from discrete valves. Still, the introduction of devices like the Intel 4004 compressed these machines onto tiny silicon dies that would fit on a fingertip.
This miniaturisation ability has powered almost all modern technological developments in every industry, from agricultural to medical. Such technology has also played a critical role in developing advanced defence technologies, including RADAR tracking and launch detection.
As such, semiconductors have arguably become as important as energy, water, and food. A nation that does not have access to such technology cannot advance beyond the technology used in the 1940s and is also unable to participate in the world economy with any advantage.
The supply chain issues resulting from COVID lockdowns demonstrated the degree to which nations depend on semiconductors, which has led many countries to worry about their national security. But the lack of semiconductors is not just a concern for the construction of military equipment; it is the ability for other nations to advance further in semiconductor technology that could give them an edge in cyberattacks.
There is no doubt that the fear of supply chain issues and the dependency on foreign nations for semiconductors will see thousands of production facilities pop up worldwide. However, some may not be interested in commercial devices but present a nation with a backup plan. Any event (such as a solar storm or war) cannot interfere with that nation’s ability to get semiconductors.
The move towards custom silicon (such as the Apple M1) could also see more foundries turn their focus to meet this need. This could push semiconductor companies to design fabrication techniques tailored to individual customers ordering tens of parts (instead of thousands). If this can be achieved, silicon dies could become the next PCB where groups of designs are put onto a single wafer with basic testing procedures. Customers can choose to get their die bonded to a package or directly to a PCB, allowing more engineers to design custom silicon.
Overall, the need for a nation to be able to develop its own semiconductors is as essential as food, water, and energy. The next decade will see nations look towards developing their own processes and supply chains or instead go out of their way to become essential to the supply chain. Any nation wanting to exert power over them would result in mutually assured destruction.