View from India: Tech inflections drive semiconductor industry

A growing demand for intelligent computing power has fuelled the growth of the semiconductor industry over the years. However, the pandemic has resulted in a shortage of the semiconductor microchip globally and in India. Industries are suffering, but the dampening situation could unlock opportunities.

5G devices, gaming consoles, hi-tech electronics, connected vehicles and electric mobility require semiconductor chips. Understandably, these chips cannot be manufactured overnight and more so as the process is capital intensive. Broadly, the process involves wafer manufacturing which is at the frontend and packaging, which represents the backend of the system.

Yet, chip manufacturers can try to lower the bridge between the demand and supply gradually. Another way of looking at it is to wait for things to get back to pre-Covid days. The Government of India (GoI) has built Centres for Excellence in Nanoelectronics (CENs) at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). This has paved the way for exploring research in semiconductors.

State governments have gone that extra mile to enable the semiconductor industry. T Works from the Telangana government is the country’s largest prototyping centre for semiconductors.  T Works has announced a partnership with Mouser Electronics, a global distributor of semiconductors and electronic components. T Works is envisioned to make prototyping accessible to startups, MSMEs and innovators. The Gujarat government, which launched its electronics policy in 2016, aim to generate around 500,000 jobs in the electronics sector in the next five years through its electronics manufacturing hub. 

The process of making chips and wafers might be commercialised as every stage of the semiconductor production is opportunity-driven. “The semiconductor industry is driven by tech inflections and exciting inflections are anticipated to take place. Already we are seeing outcomes like 3D LAN, novel gate architecture and 3D packaging. Newer tech solutions may leverage big data and Internet of Things (IoT) to manage defects in the supply chain,” said Shrinivasan Krishnan - MD, Lam Research at the IESA Vision Summit.

Along with equipment and process innovation, the ability to use new materials is the way forward. The equipment to make wafers involves processing and this requires chemistry-based applications. “To breakdown the process, aluminum is used in the semiconductor equipment. Though the equipment may last for several years, but the process may stop functioning at some point in time. Due to this, many parts need to be replaced. Ironically, such situations can open out job avenues,” added Vikas Dabeer -Sr. Director - Applied Materials. 

Other than the equipment, semiconductors require chemicals and gases. If these gases and chemicals can be generated in-house, it can help lower the overall production cost. It may even be a source of income for many.

No doubt companies can provide tech assistance for the supply chain. But what needs to be understood is whether there’s enough infrastructure to take the process forward. We need to equip ourselves in order to keep pace with the global market. More so, as manufacturing and R&D is likely to be interconnected in the global manufacturing scene in this decade. The probable interconnection of manufacturing and R&D at the global level could be worth exploring by the domestic market. Make in India products could be made for the global market. It also aligns with the vision of making India Self Reliant or Atma Nirbhar Bharat.

It’s important to meet the needs of the future by bringing in new learning into domain knowledge. This is not just for the global market, but for domestic needs, too. Let’s not forget, there has been a significant change in the use of semiconductors over time. “The auto industry is one such example. The manner in which electronic components are integrated into the automotive is different from what it was a couple of years ago,” felt Dabeer. A more recent example is Covid, which has increased the need for communication.

Against this backdrop, probably it would be beneficial if semiconductors were to be introduced as a discipline from high school onwards. Right from school, students could be made aware of the possible roadblocks in the semiconductor industry. “For instance, the products could be market ready provided an ecosystem is in place for academia. Short term projects can be taken up by students pursuing Masters Degree in engineering. Long term projects can be executed research scholars,” explained Krishnan.

India may become the hub for grooming talent for global customers through government intervention. “The trinity of the government-industry-academia is a key enabler for the growth of the semiconductor industry. The semiconductor market is projected to be $1.2 trillion by 2030. The median age of India is 28 years. So it makes sense to forge ties and collaborations for the production of chips to meet the forthcoming needs of the decade,” highlighted Sagar Sharma - Invest India.

Around two decades ago, a small fraction of professionals were employed in the semiconductor industry. The number of employable professionals in the semiconductor industry is multifold. “Semiconductors require professionals with working knowledge of metallurgy and material science. Looking ahead, companies will develop semiconductors for the industry. There is a chip shortage in the country and it makes economic sense to establish a semiconductor fab (fabrication plant) in India to meet the demand-supply needs,” observed Sreenivasan Raghavan PhD. -Director CeNSE IISc.

Semiconductor devices utilise all kinds of materials.  A job in a semiconductor unit requires varied expertise. Writing the software, collecting data and backend operations are innumerable opportunities waiting to be explored. All this requires working knowledge of electronics and chemistry, material science and software usage. This knowledge needs to be funnelled towards the creation of high-performance low-power chips that can offer integrated services and solutions in semiconductor domains.

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