U.S. focuses on invigorating ‘Chiplets’ to stay cutting-edge in tech

by Don Clark for the NEW YORK TIMES – Chiplets, a way to design chips for higher performance, has become a key prong of U.S. industrial policy. But pushing for more of this activity domestically is challenging.

For more than 50 years, designers of computer chips mainly used one tactic to boost performance: They shrank electronic components to pack more power onto each piece of silicon.

Then more than a decade ago, engineers at the chip maker Advanced Micro Devices began toying with a radical idea. Instead of designing one big microprocessor with vast numbers of tiny transistors, they conceived of creating one from smaller chips that would be packaged tightly together to work like one electronic brain.

The concept, sometimes called chiplets, caught on in a big way, with AMD, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, IBM and Intel introducing such products. Chiplets rapidly gained traction because smaller chips are cheaper to make, while bundles of them can top the performance of any single slice of silicon.

The strategy, based on advanced packaging technology, has since become an essential tool to enabling progress in semiconductors. And it represents one of the biggest shifts in years for an industry that drives innovations in fields like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and military hardware.

“Packaging is where the action is going to be,” said Subramanian Iyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped pioneer the chiplet concept. “It’s happening because there is actually no other way.”

The catch is that such packaging, like making chips themselves, is overwhelmingly dominated by companies in Asia. Although the United States accounts for around 12 percent of global semiconductor production, American companies provide just 3 percent of chip packaging, according to IPC, a trade association.

That issue has now landed chiplets in the middle of U.S. industrial policymaking. The CHIPS Act, a $52 billion subsidy package that passed last summer, was seen as President Biden’s move to reinvigorate domestic chip making by providing money to build more sophisticated factories called “fabs.” But part of it was also aimed at stoking advanced packaging factories in the United States to capture more of that essential process… FULL ARTICLE

Headline image: A chip after it has been packaged at Promex Industries.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times