Semiconductor development and manufacturing in the US has been getting quite a bit of attention lately; the shortage in late 2020 that remains today opened the eyes of all stakeholders across a large bandwidth of industries that depend on chips. Automotive, consumer electronics, military systems, healthcare and telecommunication networks are just a few industries that are reeling from the lack of available semiconductors. Some are more advanced than others in size and scope, yet all embrace this tiny miracle of speed and productivity. Without the minimum influx of these tiny pieces of technology, many of these industries slowed or shut down production all together for large chunks of time.
While semiconductors are revered and ubiquitous across the media and manufacturing landscape, oftentimes, the forgotten foundation, PCBs, are completely passed over and ignored. Build the most advanced nano-semiconductor and it’s utterly useless without the PCB foundation-a chip needs the foundation (PCB) to function. Our government, think tanks and private industry leaders have fully embraced domestic electronics innovation and fabrication, while continuing to overlook the importance of the PCB. These same public and private sector leaders have allowed domestic production of PCB raw materials (laminate, epoxy, soldermask, ink, etc.) to go by the way of many homegrown industries: they have disappeared entirely or been relegated to specialty or niche markets, leaving us dangerously exposed to the whims of the international supply chain.
The US House of Representatives just passed a bill that includes northwards of $50 billion towards funding domestic chip production. There are billions of dollars more allocated to research and development within the bill, making it one of the single largest investments in a singular technology by the US government. The FABS and CHIPS Acts are both intertwined in this governmental funding focus, thus displaying a keen interest in competing with Asia and, if needed, meeting all domestic supply fulfillment requirements. Intel is leading the corporate charge with the recent announcement of a $20 billion investment in building a fab in Ohio, doubling down on their recent efforts to reshape their business model; harkening back to the early days by designing and manufacturing semiconductors. From the government’s proposals to Intel’s commitments, the message is clear: public and private dollars are showcasing the importance of this endeavor to re-enter the “chip race” and compete on the world’s stage, ensuring domestic security and continued innovation.
All of this makes sense for the US on many levels; however, we need to point out the “missing ingredient”. As mentioned, a chip is worthless without the PCB foundation, so is the bare PCB without proper domestic manufacturing and raw material sectors. Collectively, these two industries have been unequivocally and unapologetically gutted without remorse over the last three decades for a variety of reasons and by a plethora of actors. Call it pure capitalism in action, intellectual theft, profit over people—it does not matter, as both are a shell of their former capacities. At the height of the PCB boom in the US, there were over 2000 PCB fab houses, along with many domestic raw material manufacturers. Contrast that with the 150 or so left today and the deplorable state of domestic laminate processing capability. The US is in trouble, yet the elephant in the room remains ignored, displaced by the “flash” of semiconductors and billions of investments. It cannot be stressed that chips are critical to most of our modern conveniences, but, until we take a percentage of dollars and invest in all things PCB (from domestic raw materials to final product fabrication), we will only solve half of the equation.
We know the issues but what can we do? Why are the public and private sectors ignoring this critical industry that is on life support? These are complex questions that require thought, historical perspective and real, tangible solutions. There are numerous articles, blogs and webinars that cover the very same elements covered in this essay; we cannot wait any longer and must take the next step. Let us all work together towards a common goal and rebuild our industry.