The semiconductor: it is a technology that we often hear about and that we often read that it has been in high demand and low in production since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But do people really understand what they are and how essential they are to the digital devices we use every day?
Micron Technology plans to build a semiconductor fab in central New York over the next 20 years, investing up to $100 billion to build the megafab factories. These megafabs are actually tiny computer chips that help various devices like cell phones, computers, cars, and washing machines hold electronic memory to perform their functions.
Shui-Kai Chin, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the College of Engineering and Computer Science, answers five questions about the manufacturing process for semiconductors and explains why it’s especially important to have them produced here in the center from New York.
Q: Can you tell us about the importance of semiconductor memory? What technology uses this kind of chips?
A: The only real things in cyberspace are people and hardware. Microchips are the electronic DNA of cyberspace. The ability to store information, that is, to remember it, is at the heart of computing. From simple math to artificial intelligence, memory is key.
If you have seen something before and remember it, you will react and calculate faster. If you learn (remember) from experience, you make better decisions. Memory, and knowing what to remember and what to ignore, is what makes people and machines smart. It is a keystone of adaptability and resilience.
Q: How important is bringing another US manufacturing operation online, especially in the central New York area?
A: It is extremely important. Central New York will now have what we call a vertically integrated capability, from hardware to major systems such as radars, medical devices, and weapons systems that defend the United States.
Within the New York center, we will have the capability to design and produce the basic components of every digital system, starting with the transistors that make up the chips, the software that runs on the chips, the networks that connect them and perspective gained from over 60 years of experience designing major systems for the US Air Force and US Navy. We have the engineering and public policy expertise to ensure the right systems are built and they are built right.
Q: What do you think engineers will do over the next 18 months to get this operation up and running?
A: Semiconductor processing plants are complex and require precisely calibrated environments. For example, the chemical content of the water must be precisely controlled to avoid the introduction of impurities. The air circulating in processing facilities must be precisely controlled to ensure that there are very few dust particles in the air that can damage a chip.
I imagine the engineers will look at the operational requirements of the facility and decide how best to use the actual site. The logistics of moving and scheduling building and construction materials is a huge task on its own. Fortunately, all of these things have already been done.
Q: What will be the biggest impact for domestic and international consumers once this new operation is fully operational?
A: Memory is used everywhere. Memory prices and availability affect all parts of the supply chain. The facility should help alleviate chip shortages once it becomes operational. It also helps secure the supply chain for the United States, which is important in building systems that can be secured from hardware.
Q: What do you think is the most important point of a new semiconductor manufacturing operation?
A: The only real things in cyberspace are hardware and people. To be exceptional, we must be able to do more than move money. We need to build great things that benefit society through innovation. Chips are at the heart of all digital devices. The people we have in central New York are already excellent in terms of what we can do. Adding chipmaking to the mix makes us even better. Our foundation for innovation has just doubled.