What would it take for the UK to become a global leader in semiconductor technology?

Semiconductors have come up in the news again recently and seem to be a big focus for govt at the moment. It seems like something the IET should have a policy interest in, so we are keen to find out more.

 As a quick summary, the UK government has launched a semiconductor advisory panel and strategy having identified semiconductors as one of the top five technologies of tomorrow, and the strategy has three main strands:

  • Grow the domestic sector
  • Mitigate the risk of supply chain disruptions
  • Protect our national security

 I'm keen to hear your views on the challenges that  need to be solved in order to be world leading in this sector to help inform a policy position and identify areas to explore in more depth.


IET Lead Policy Officer

  • 1 personal opinion..

    Well the first thing to do is to realise that the UK is already involved in the semiconductor supply - but not equally all steps of it, and not in the high volume end. There are many, though perhaps not many excess, IC designers based in the UK, but mostly these are producing designs to be made on foundries abroad, and certainly for the 'standard'  logic and BiCMOS processes the files are 'taped out' and then sent to the foundry on the other side of the planet and weeks or months later, devices come back.

    This tends to be niche products - the custom or Application Specific IC - "ASIC".

    The foundries that are in the UK and there are a number (big ones in Durham, Manchester, Lancing, Chippenham, Glasgow, Newport and many smaller Uni level places), are mainly doing more exotic materials or cutting edge research type stuff - not the pile high sell cheap 700nm CMOS lines for 'chips' in cars and musical socks - that is mostly done in the Far east...

    So to change that - firstly a paradigm shift for electronics designers - projects  moved from hand wired tag strips and wiring between the valve holders to through hole PCBs in the '60s and 70s then to machine placed surface mount PCBs in the  80s and 90's respectively (I have a long memory ;-) ). The  move from transistors to single function chips like memory, to mixed function chips like microcontrollers with integrated ADCs and so on has also happened along with the rise of the multi-layer PCB.

    What has not happened, but it will come, as sure as the setting sun will rise again, is the move to designing a chip becoming as common as a complex PCB design, and almost undertaken on a project by project basis. UK manufacturers do not yet grasp this nettle. In the end it will be forced as discrete devices, and simpler chips are dropped from suppliers catalogues as unprofitable.

    Most chip designers seem to start on something that is part of a multi project wafer  -so-called MPW-  rather than a whole slice of silicon at hundreds of £K, having a step and repeat of your designs interleaved with 10-20  other folks designs, that when sliced and diced means you get 50 or so of your pride and joy at 1/10 or 1/20 of the cost, this is a better (= cheaper) place to make your first design blunders. Facilitating this approach for students at FE colleges and universities to dip their toes into the analogue chip design world would be a way to ensure a stream of future 'chip design aware' engineers. This sort of happens with Europractice and others, but is not well publicized - it is for example reasonably  common in Malaysia and Singapore for small groups of students to design chips in this way in conjunction with regional foundries, as part of their course work when learning electronics.

    The chip design software arena is dominated by Altium (A US company) and their pricing structure favours folk who design on an industrial scale - there is a need to create design  toolchains at a price point that allows the 10 person start-up businesses that only do 3 chips a year to compete, at least to get them started.

    Finally foundries - this is chicken and egg, no demand == no supply, and perhaps a bit of a wimpy attitude to H and S in the UK compared to places far away -  I know of universities and small companies that have closed clean room and processing facilities (and even PCB etching facilities too ) under the burden of compliance with rules about which chemicals can be stored how and so on outweighing the cost of the loss of local capability.

    In the UK things like planning and licence approvals seem to be measured in months and years, rather than the days of China or the weeks of Taiwan (assuming the proposal is accepted at all)..

    Other opinions  will vary.


  • Thanks for your reply, Mike. Lots of food for thought in there - seems like there is a lot of areas where it could be opened out to be more accessible by looking at regulation, education and infrastructure... amongst other things.

  • The main challenge to overcome is the government.  Having a "semiconductor advisory panel" will achieve nothing.  Identifying semiconductors as one of the top five technologies will achieve nothing.

    If you want to achieve things, you actually have to do something.  That's something the current government is incapable of.

  • you actually have to do something.  That's something the current government is incapable of

    Ah well, ignoring the grammar (surely "that is something of which the current govt. is incapable") I would agree, and suggest that is sadly true of almost every area of UK government it seems.

    So it is a very good job there are no large problems looming that will require decisive action to be taken now or very soon.

    Ah.Except perhaps

    Energy and climate

    Industry - we need some





    Cost of living - but that follows from the others

    Oh dear...

    It's not helped by the fact that we got rid of the more experienced of the technical civil service over the last 25 years or so, and so even the advice the ministers get may be flaky or biased.


  • Hi Simon, what would you ask government to do with regards to semiconductors? Or what area do you think needs the most focus?

  • As a general point I do have a concern about any question including "UK to become a global leader". Could this be rephrased to "UK to become a global player" (or partner or similar word).  "Global leader" is a good tub-thumping political phrase, but in the real world of engineering (and semiconductor technology is a particularly fine example of this) we are in a global industry and the most effective (and most realistic) thing to do for everyone's benefit is to be a key partner. Beware of hubris! (Plus the IET is striving to be a multi-national organisation, should it really be promoting UK self-interest?)

    So more specifically to the question but springing off that point, what I would like to see the UK Government doing to support the UK semiconductor research, development and manufacturing is to press for better engagement with overseas partners, specifically striving to retain engagement with the EU academic partnership programmes and build relationships with other similar programmes.

    And leading on from that, how much IP it is reasonable to expect to be "UK based" I think is a challenging question - and it always has been right back to the days of e.g. INMOS when such questions were first seriously raised. I've been one step removed from the semiconductor industry for the last few years, so I may be wrong (and as ever happy to be corrected), but my impression is that it is still heavily dominated by the phones / gaming / entertainment / volume computing market, requiring huge volumes (and rapid development) to be a serious player. So again, I'd suggest the most sensible question for any one nation to consider is where they can fit into that behemoth. Often it's pure luck that a group of people happen to form in a particular country with expertise in a particular area of value to the wider industry, which is hard (read: darn near impossible) to predict or deliberately nurture, what does matter is allowing that to grow by providing support without excessive bureaucracy.  

    I know none of that helps with the last two bullets "Mitigate the risk of supply chain disruptions" and "Protect our national security", but again I suspect a multitude of international links and hence diversity is probably the best bet?



  • Thanks for this, Andy! I appreciate you challenging the question - you are right, that as a multinational organisation, global partnership and collaboration is important to the IET. Just wondered if you would consider the UK to be a a global player already, or not quite there yet?

    On partnership research, would specific funding be needed, for example a research call on semiconductors that stipulates/encourages international collaboration, or do you think ensuring support for existing programmes would address it sufficiently? 


  • We are already playing - it is just we are in the shallow end, and doing some very cunning things at the edge of the possible, surprisingly cheaply.

    It is not reasonable, and barring some catastrophe, probably  never will be reasonable to compete in the mass production sub $1 per chip car electronics and musical birthday cards and heated socks end of the market, as to do so would require effort on the scale of TMSC.

    (By the way for whom spending $40 billion on a couple of stateside fabs is a small change compared to their Tiawan efforts.- Those fabs are set to produce ~ (merely!) 600k wafers a year - their home effort is more like a couple of million wafers with several thousand chips per wafer,  per month. )

    So rather than chasing work we will always be outbid on, we need to be encouraging and training the next wave of cunning makers of expensive devices.

    The place to invest is to fund students and probably also older engineers wishing to stay near the cutting edge, time on the tools and spaces on the shared wafers to play and to understand what they can and should be doing to make the next wave of more integrated clever stuff, at the 'sure it is a £500 chip the size of a thumbnail, but it will replace a £1000 PCB the size of a playing card'  level.

    PS for those wondering about those shared wafer MPW costs.


    shows that costs on a shared wafer on say Xfab varies by exact process a bit but is a couple of K euros per square mm, for a drop of 50 identical devices based on a minimum device area of 10mm2 (say 3mm by 3mm and a bit of a scribing border) So $20k gets you 50 chips...

    There is probably some scope for economy of scale or smaller minimum quantities with a central purchaser and aggregator.


  • It's not a question of the most focus.  Lofty goals like that mean you have to do everything.  That means doing the research to develop new technologies.  It means commercial companies to turn the research into products.  It means building cutting edge chip fabs in the UK (and they cost billions).  Security of supply means not just manufacturing the semiconductors in the UK, but also taking control of the supply chains for all the raw materials.

    The challenge is enormous, and I'm old and cynical enough to think that it's going to go nowhere, whatever the IET thinks or does.

  • The problem here is that government is all about Sound Bites, Position Statements and Virtue Signaling.  The government wishes the UK to become a global leader in semiconductor technology. They have put three quite different but not necessarily mutually exclusive goals.

    - Grow the domestic sector (Industry is important)

    - Mitigate the risk of supply chain disruptions (local supply or better supply chain management)

    - Protect our national security (control the IP)

    All these require significant engineering solutions but current government contains no engineering.

    As I have previously said here regarding Green solutions:


    These goals need to be looked at like Capital Expenditure Requests in industry:

    - What is the objective?

    - What is the background to this request?

    - What is the proposed solution?

    - What are the time scales?

    - What resources are required?

    - What is the cost?

    - What is the payback or other justification?

    - What are the alternatives?

    - Why were they rejected?

    All these points need to be supported with data and calculations.

    Without sufficient STEM resources in government to answer these questions nothing will actually happen. The challenge for the IET is to get STEM into government.