Securing the U.S. Government’s Microelectronics Supply Chain is More Important Than Ever

 

Increasing the rate of technical innovation in a time of fierce global technology competition requires collaboration

By Zachary J. Lemnios
May 17, 2021


The global COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to the ways science can help address the most pressing challenges of our time. As IBM’s CEO, Arvind Krishna, noted recently in a policy platform, America has “reached a point where we must re-invigorate our national approach to science and innovation because, as of today, we are not focused enough on advancing science to meet our biggest challenges.”

We also find ourselves in an era of tremendous global competition across many industries. Particularly, the microelectronics industry has profound consequences for our national security and economy. Next generation systems depend upon a pipeline of trusted, assured, and protected leading-edge microelectronics. This is an industry that the Semiconductor Industry Association calls a “globalized, inseparable cooperation system where cooperation and joint innovation between upstream and downstream of semiconductor industry’s global value chain has promoted industry’s development and accelerated transformation to digitalization.” Supply chain vulnerabilities, which have been highlighted by events in the past year, point to the urgent need for a secure innovation ecosystem to enable manufacture of the most advanced commercial semiconductor nodes.

Many companies are pivoting to partnerships

Given the extreme competition, market volatility and the scale of capital investments needed, many companies have pivoted from vertically integrated development to a model that leverages best-in-class strategic partnerships.The trust and security of microelectronics created through partnerships requires in-depth understanding of a complex global supply chain that includes, design services, EDA tools, intellectual property design elements, photomask design tools, foundry services, assembly, test, & packaging services, and component packaging.

For IBM, the pivot to a collaborative model leverages a world-class research team and a semiconductor technology research center to co-develop manufacturing advancements with strategic partners, including a set of foundry manufacturing partners. IBM and the State of New York have invested over $2 billion in a state-of-the-art R&D fabrication facility and ecosystem to support this model and to establish an "AI Hardware Center" for artificial intelligence-focused computer chip research, development, prototyping, testing and simulation.

Increasing the number of transistors per chip can make them the chips faster, more reliable, and more efficient. IBM’s 2 nm design demonstrates the advanced scaling of semiconductors using IBM Research’s nanosheet technology. Its architecture is an industry first. Developed less than four years after IBM Research announced its milestone 5 nm design, this latest breakthrough will allow the 2 nm design to fit up to 50 billion transistors on a chip the size of a fingernail.

We used this collaborative model in developing the 7 nm foundation behind IBM POWER10,   This comes after IBM has partnered with Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. on research and development for more than a decade, including demonstration of the semiconductor industry's first 7nm test chips through an IBM Alliance.  This deep engagement helped to make the foundation that enabled IBM to design this complex 16 core processor in 7 nm technology with up to 3x greater processor energy efficiency, workload capacity, and container density as compared with the IBM POWER9 processor.

We also used this collaborative model to develop the world’s first energy efficient AI chip at the vanguard of low precision training and inference, built in 7nm technology. This opens the door to an entirely new class of energy-efficient AI hardware accelerators that will significantly increase compute performance without requiring exorbitant energy. Both IBM designs utilized a broad ecosystem of IP cores, commercial and IBM-developed design tools, simulation environments and foundry partners (both domestic and global).  

And as we enter the next chapter of chip design, IBM’s 2 nm chip helps advance the state-of-the-art in the semiconductor industry, addressing this growing demand. It is projected to achieve 45 percent higher performance, or 75 percent lower energy use, than today’s most advanced 7 nm chips. 

A personal perspective: Strong commercial competition for SOTA technology

Commercial industries’ achievements on semiconductors R&D also have an impact in the U.S. government’s innovation. Today, the defense industrial base (DIB) and other developers that deliver and support U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) systems are competing with the commercial sector for access to state-of-the-art microelectronics.Leading-edge foundries are at capacity with commercial volumes while the defense sector needs access with very low volumes. The DOD will need to expect to pay more for access to advanced technologies where it cannot compete with high volumes.These investments could be massive and may be enduring to ensure access to leading edge technologies.

I believe the DOD would also benefit from a collaborative base of advanced system developers that are well connected to the commercial semiconductor industry, with the tradecraft to apply those technologies into advanced DOD systems.  This requires engagement in strategic partnerships, joint innovation, and co-development and would enable the DOD to aggregate volume needs across multiple Programs of Record and more efficiently leverage prior investment in semiconductor IP. Connecting this talent with industry in a new way could help accelerate the rate of innovation and the adoption of state-of-the-art microelectronics in advanced DOD systems.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the DOD has an opportunity to greatly strengthen its position by pivoting its laboratory enterprise from a captive DOD development model to one with a key role co-developing advanced technology with industry while preserving first-use access to early concepts.  The DOD supports dozens of FFRDS, UARCS, research centers, systems centers, laboratories, engineering centers, institutes, and development centers across 22 states, employing tens of thousands of scientists and engineers, both civilian and military, public employees and contractors. 

In order for America to continue in our leading role in driving cutting- edge technologies, it’s time to take the bold actions that will advance innovation and economic competitiveness and safeguard our national security. As an industry leader of innovation in semiconductor technology, IBM believes that commercial-led innovation in partnership with the U.S. government in this important area can have a long-lasting positive effect that can be replicated to other industries. We’re bringing the idea of a comprehensive approach that has been co-engineered and validated among DIB partners as well as with industry-leading supplier to overcome this critical challenge.

 


Zachary J. Lemnios
Vice President, IBM Research and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense