INDIA’s journey in making semiconductors — known as chips in the electronic industry parlance — is best described in two eras. One is the period of the early 1980s when New Delhi was two years behind the global technology curve. The second is unfolding now, post-pandemic, or specifically, post-2021.
In the intervening period, India did three things. First, on the technology of producing commercial-grade chips, it just ambled along, ignoring the expected boom and literally missing the bus. Second, it flourished in the design of chips; Indian engineers worked with global giants. Third, it worked on making chips for the military, strategic and space sector.
Since the 1990s, global biggies in the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan leap-frogged on technology. Smartphones, laptops, TVs, cars, ACs, military hardware, planes, satellites, engines, missiles, life-saving devices and CT scans today use semiconductors.
In 1987, India was just two years behind the latest chip-manufacturing technology. Today, we are 12 generations behind. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State
India had a headstart
India kicked off at a time when China, a key global player today, had not even started making semiconductor chips. In the mid-1970s, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) began an assistance project with the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (CEERI), Pilani, to build semiconductor technology capabilities. The lab came under the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research.
In 1982, the UNDP, in its report on the progress of the project, said, “CEERI has a capability in the high technology areas of power semiconductor devices, hybrid and monolithic integrated circuits and microwave devices.”
Almost a similar story unfolded in Mohali. In May 1976, the Union Cabinet approved the formation of Semi-Conductors Laboratory (SCL). In 1984, the company entered into a technical collaboration with American Microsystems and started the production of a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS). A fire in February 1989 caused damage and the SCL did not produce anything until 1997. By then, technology had jumped a few generations. A probe panel ruled out the possibility of external sabotage.
For decades, SCL produced chips for India’s successful space programmes, including chips for the Mangalyaan mission.
Union Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar recently pointed out, “In 1987, India was just two years behind the latest chip-manufacturing technology. Today, we are 12 generations behind.”
In September 2021, the Quad (India, USA, Japan and Australia) issued a joint statement: “It will launch a joint initiative to map capacity, identify vulnerabilities and bolster supply-chain security for semiconductors and their vital components.”
Recently, India announced semiconductor technology tie-ups among Quad countries. On July 20, India and Japan signed a Memorandum of Cooperation for the development of a semiconductor ecosystem that will promote the manufacturing, research, design, talent development and supply-chain resilience. After the event, Union Minister of Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw said, “We will take it forward under government-to-government cooperation.”
Japan is a leader in silicon wafer, ingot manufacturing and refining gases like neon, a critical raw material for making chips. Anshuman Tripathi, member of the National Security Council Secretariat, while moderating a session at Semicon-2023 (July 28-30), asked a Japanese diplomat on the panel about neon. “India has enough neon. We need the Japanese to do the last-mile processing of purifying neon for use in chip-making,” Tripathi said.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit in June, Micron declared an investment of $825 million. Another $400 million investment being done by Applied Materials and Lam Technologies is training 60,000 engineers in India.
An MoU was signed by Lam Technologies with the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, on July 29. They will develop a specialised course for Indian universities, teaching semiconductor fabrication technology using Lam Research’s virtual fabrication software and simulator.
The US tilt stems from the India-US ‘Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology’ announced in January. It promised “supporting the development of a semiconductor design, manufacturing and fabrication ecosystem in India”. In March, India and Australia announced the India-Australia Critical Minerals Investment Partnership. The two nations are looking at lithium and cobalt — both critical as building blocks of essential modern-day technologies.
In December 2021, just three months after the Quad statement, the Union Cabinet approved a programme for incentives for the development of semiconductor and display ecosystem with an outlay of Rs 76,000 crore.
The programme provides incentive support to companies and consortia engaged in semiconductor fabrication, sensors, design and the assembly, testing, marking and packaging (ATMP). Among the first to get this incentive is US giant Micron for investing $825 million in a $2.75 billion project. Of the rest will be 50 per cent fiscal support by the Central government and incentives representing 20 per cent of the total project cost from Gujarat.
In September last year, the Union Cabinet approved modifications to the “Programme for the Development of Semiconductors and Display Manufacturing Ecosystem in India”. It set a target to establish at least 20 semiconductor design, components manufacturing and display fabrication units over the next six years.
Giving details in the last week of July, Rajeev Chandrasekhar said, “The rollout of the fabrication unit will be within two to three years of the announcement. The world is moving to newer architecture for chips.” A programme has been launched to develop next-generation processors, he added.
Learning from mistakes
In 2022, India invited proposals from bidders for semiconductor fabrication. The window to apply for the incentives was a mere 45 days. Three proposals were submitted but none of these managed to clear the selection criteria laid down by the India Semiconductor Mission (ISM). In June, applications were re-invited and the industry has the option to claim incentives as long as the resources are available.
While India is evaluating proposals to set up chip fabrication of 40NM (nano metre), questions have been raised if this could be bettered. Sophistication and efficiency of chips increases as the NM levels decrease. Some of the chips powering contemporary smartphones and laptops are in the range between 5NM and 22NM.
Vaishnaw made it clear that “almost 50 per cent of the demand for chipsets in the world is greater than 28NM”. With India doing well in the automobile and telecom sector, there is ample scope, he added.
The Reconfigurable Intelligent Systems Engineering (RISE) Laboratory at IIT-Madras developed ‘Shakti’ production-grade processors and has a family of six processors. Small batches were fabricated at Intel’s facility in the US and were used in the strategic sector.
Prof Arijit Raychowdhury from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, US, said at the Semicon, “The design of chips was first wave, the second wave is manufacturing. I see the second wave happening in India.”
At the Def-Expo in Chennai in 2018, the DRDO opened up on its work on semiconductors, micro-processors, micro-controllers and micro-sensors. The capacities of chips are strictly classified.
The Solid State Physics Laboratory under the DRDO is engaged in the research and development of semiconductor materials and devices and this includes microwave integrated circuits, high-power laser diodes, space-quality solar cells, semiconductor crystals and structures.
Startups in the fray
- More than 30 semiconductor design startups have been set up in India, including some from industry leaders from the Silicon Valley, California.
- Five startups have already received financial support from the government. Another 25 are being evaluated for their proposals for Next Gen products and devices.
- The target is to have a $1 trillion digital economy by 2026.
- Report of the Semicon India Future Skills Talent Committee says a manpower of 15 lakh will be required by 2032 in the semiconductor sector for chip design, fabrication, etc.
- In 2020, India’s chip imports stood at $15 billion, and 37 per cent of chip imports came from China.
Boost for SCL, Mohali
- India is set to announce a 40 NM semiconductor fabrication unit at SCL, Mohali. The government is looking to invest Rs 10,000 crore.
- The partner company could be from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the US. Several proposals are under evaluation.
- It will include an India Semiconductor Research Centre in a public-private partnership model to facilitate modernisation of the SCL, including the research centre.
Top ten semiconductor companies
- Taiwan Semiconductor
Revenue: $71.6 billion
Revenue: $69.5 billion
Revenue: $42.1 billion
Revenue: $33.2 billion
- Micron Technology Inc
Revenue: $30.7 billion
- NVIDIA Corp
Revenue: $28.5 billion
- Applied Materials, Inc
Revenue $25.8 billion
- ASE Technology Holding Co
Revenue: $23 billion
- Advanced Micro Devices
Revenue: $22.8 billion
- ASML Holding
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