The future depends on chips. Are we ready?

After half a century of global outsourcing, the manufacturing process of computer microchips has been dispersed, with each step along the way becoming highly concentrated in a few countries.

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Editorials

December 6, 2022 - 3:11 PM

President Joe Biden was in Syracuse in October to celebrate the federal government’s effort to spur domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors, spending that will help bring a Micron Technologies megafab plant and a $100 billion investment to Central New York. Dennis Nett | [email protected]/TNS

When President Biden visits a microchip factory under construction in Arizona on Tuesday, it might look like a political victory lap: The factory will bring $12 billion and thousands of jobs to an important swing state that just elected a Democratic governor and senator. But the chips the factory will manufacture carry far more significance than being a partisan maneuver. They are essential to U.S. security.

Silicon chips, or semiconductors, the tiny integrated circuits that power electronic devices, are the reason we can send texts or turn on the television. They are the means by which pilots can fly aircraft safely and militaries can monitor missiles on radar. The potency of every chip depends on the number of transistors squeezed onto its surface, and because that number is growing exponentially, so too is what the chips can accomplish. The inventions that emerge, especially in artificial intelligence and supercomputing, will determine not only who will lead the global economy but also who will win wars. The future, in short, depends on chips.

The problem is that, right now, the United States can’t depend on a steady supply of chips, even though the design and software are mostly developed here. After half a century of global outsourcing, the manufacturing process has been dispersed, with each step along the way becoming highly concentrated in a few countries. The silicon wafers that carry the transistors are mainly made in Japan. The lithography tools that pattern chips are mainly made in Japan and the Netherlands. Processor chips themselves are fabricated largely in Taiwan, notably by the company TSMC (which is building the factory Biden will visit in Arizona). The chips are then tested and packaged into devices, primarily in China.

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