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.

  • 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.

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