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Meredith LaBeau: How Congress can support American electronics manufacturing

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Dr. Meredith LaBeau, Chief Technology Officer at Calumet Electronics, had a story published in The Detroit News, focusing on how Congress can support American electronics manufacturing.

I have bad news. The U.S. Senate’s plan to strengthen leadership in critical technologies, the United States Innovation and Competition Act, will fall short of its lofty goals.

That isn’t to say the bill wouldn’t have benefits. The act would set much-needed federal priorities for research and development and provide billions of dollars in funding to improve domestic capacity to produce semiconductors. The bill passed the Senate in June and is awaiting consideration in the House of Representatives.

While the bill deserves praise for focusing long overdue attention on America’s supply chain challenges, it has a problem. The backbone to almost all innovation for next-generation systems requires a robust and technologically strong supply chain, particularly for electronics systems, the brains of the technologies that make modern life possible, from smartphones to cars and beyond.

Legislation aims to strengthen semiconductor research, but this is only a tiny fraction of the battle to provide a domestic supply chain, LaBeau writes.

The bill aims to strengthen semiconductor research, but this is only a tiny fraction of the battle to provide a domestic supply chain to allow America to remain globally competitive. The rest of the vital supply chain equation, known as electronics and advanced packaging manufacturing, has been overlooked.

Semiconductors don’t work alone; they are only one piece of the electronics DNA.

The electronics value chain is complicated. To build advancing technologies, the system requires a wide array of moving parts: semiconductors, yes, but also organic/ceramic interposers, assembled printed circuit board and more. All these different components are critical for chips to actually do anything. And America is woefully trailing in the global competition to produce these critical products. The domestic supply chain has 1-2% of the advanced packaging economy needed to put these products together to power our technology. And these supply chains are often the most vulnerable to global shocks and disruptions.

Why, then, is so much attention directed on semiconductors in an effort to restore America as a global leader in advanced manufacturing, rather than on creating a holistic solution? This is like trying to improve a car by only redesigning the engine: yes, it may be a critical part of a car, but there are countless others that are important, too.

The U.S. government knows there are gaps. The Biden administration earlier this year put out a report, Building Resilient Supply Chains, that evaluated the health of America’s most critical supply chains. It found that America’s supply chains need to be more resilient, creating new initiatives to strengthen them. But the United States Innovation and Competition Act fails to account for this and instead primarily focuses — as government efforts often do — on just one sector (semiconductors) rather than the ecosystem in need.

Fortunately, we can deliver swift change, inspired by the concept of industrial commons, a foundation for collective partnerships of suppliers, designers, manufacturers and educational institutions where innovation and research are shared with diverse industries. This would allow the U.S. to re-gain the capability at capacity needed to achieve the overarching goals of the United States Innovation and Competition Act.

Suppose we are to innovate and create the future. In that case, we must work throughout the supply chain to develop robust and reliable technologies, starting with the base foundation of an electronics system, the printed circuit boards and the advanced packaging necessary to build the DNA.

Doing so will reap major benefits. The U.S. can foster technological leadership and advance critical defense and medical systems while strengthening the economy by improving manufacturing here on American soil.

Modest improvements to the bill can produce real change. For example, ensuring language is included in the United States Innovation and Competition Act or similar legislation to expand the definition of semiconductors to include the entire ecosystem would build a strong foundation for all further technological advancements that require electronic systems.

Additionally, Congress needs to fund industrial partnerships and add advanced packaging as a key focus area to help address the gaps identified by the Biden administration’s supply chain assessment.

America can lead. However, Congress plays a significant role in shaping our manufacturing success. The bill under consideration represents a major opportunity to jump-start the industry. But Congress must support legislation that represents the entire electronics ecosystem.

This is truly a “little bit goes a long way” scenario that can usher in a new era of American global leadership in the world’s most critical technologies.Meredith LaBeau is the chief technology officer at Calumet Electronics Corporation in Calumet.

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