More than a decade ago engineers at AMD “began toying with a radical idea,” remembers the New York Times. Instead of designing one big microprocessor, they “conceived of creating one from smaller chips that would be packaged tightly together to work like one electronic brain.”
But with “diminishing returns” from Moore’s Law, packaging smaller chips suddenly becomes more important. [Alternate URL here.] As much as 80% of microprocessors will be using these designs by 2027, according to an estimate from the market research firm Yole Group cited by the Times:
The concept, sometimes called chiplets, caught on in a big way, with AMD, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, IBM and Intel introducing such products. Chiplets rapidly gained traction because smaller chips are cheaper to make, while bundles of them can top the performance of any single slice of silicon. The strategy, based on advanced packaging technology, has since become an essential tool to enabling progress in semiconductors. And it represents one of the biggest shifts in years for an industry that drives innovations in fields like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and military hardware. “Packaging is where the action is going to be,” said Subramanian Iyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped pioneer the chiplet concept. “It’s happening because there is actually no other way.”
The catch is that such packaging, like making chips themselves, is overwhelmingly dominated by companies in Asia. Although the United States accounts for around 12 percent of global semiconductor production, American companies provide just 3 percent of chip packaging, according to IPC, a trade association. That issue has now landed chiplets in the middle of U.S. industrial policymaking. The CHIPS Act, a $52 billion subsidy package that passed last summer, was seen as President Biden’s move to reinvigorate domestic chip making by providing money to build more sophisticated factories called “fabs.” But part of it was also aimed at stoking advanced packaging factories in the United States to capture more of that essential process… The Commerce Department is now accepting applications for manufacturing grants from the CHIPS Act, including for chip packaging factories. It is also allocating funding to a research program specifically on advanced packaging…
Some chip packaging companies are moving quickly for the funding. One is Integra Technologies in Wichita, Kan., which announced plans for a $1.8 billion expansion there but said that was contingent on receiving federal subsidies. Amkor Technology, an Arizona packaging service that has most of its operations in Asia, also said it was talking to customers and government officials about a U.S. production presence… Packaging services still need others to supply the substrates that chiplets require to connect to circuit boards and one another… But the United States has no major makers of those substrates, which are primarily produced in Asia and evolved from technologies used in manufacturing circuit boards. Many U.S. companies have also left that business, another worry that industry groups hope will spur federal funding to help board suppliers start making substrates.
In March, Mr. Biden issued a determination that advanced packaging and domestic circuit board production were essential for national security, and announced $50 million in Defense Production Act funding for American and Canadian companies in those fields. Even with such subsidies, assembling all the elements required to reduce U.S. dependence on Asian companies “is a huge challenge,” said Andreas Olofsson, who ran a Defense Department research effort in the field before founding a packaging start-up called Zero ASIC. “You don’t have suppliers. You don’t have a work force. You don’t have equipment. You have to sort of start from scratch.”
Read more of this story at Slashdot.