Rescuing the American chip industry
What should we make of H.R. 6359, the semiconductor bill currently before Congress? Clearly, not all of Congress is ready to sign on to it. A drastically slimmed down version was voted out of committee only last week.
As almost always in modern law, the devil is in the details. Is the semiconductor bill to be:
(A) Pork for the current USA ruling party, with the name "semiconductor" stamped on it?
(B) Achieve the goal of increasing domestic mass production at domestic "fabs" of functional integrated circuit (I.C.) chips, both for domestic use and overseas marketing?
Regarding (B), the USA needs to manufacture more than just the fanciest high-end (smallest 3nm node) I.C. processors for phones and computers. It also needs to manufacture larger nodes transistors, like 13 nm to 26 nm nodes for general purpose processes: display I.C.s, large high power IBGTs that can handle electric car motor-generator high voltage/high power switchings, and analog signal processors.
Many retail Wall Street investors, including Nancy Pelosi and her husband, seem to think that fabless semiconductor giants like Nvidia will get a stock price boost from this legislation. This, even though "fabless" means they make no chips/I.C.s or transistors at all — these types of firms just do paper designs, collect patents, and offshore 99% of I.C. production and electronic board assembly.
This is confusing, as the bill in theory is supposed to get I.C. production at new or upgraded, U.S.-located "fabrication" facilities ramped up — not to perpetuate the wealthiest of fabless firms. The funds from the bill are absolutely not supposed to end up as bonuses to the board of directors or as big dividend payouts.
Engineers who, having worked in fabs for production engineering, also wonder why this bill is confusing and so easily corrupted for the gain of stock traders or fabless firms.
Historically, the fabs moved from the USA in the 1980–90s, to seek lower labor costs. This drift to Asia was accelerated by the machinations of the State Department of trading American jobs for adherence to international allegiances, military-friendly port and base locations. Today American labor is not that much more costly than the 1980–90s, and the allegiances thing is experiencing serious reconsideration on the part of many countries.
Another reason fabs left the USA was the massive attack on them from the EPA and the states' equivalent pollution bureaucracies. Pollution bureaucracy has become a big business. Unfortunately, most of it just sucks away productivity with little tangible result. A reality that few American voters seem to appreciate is that the main reason pollution decreased in America is that it was simply moved to other counties. The reason places like Los Angeles can see blue skies rather than 1960s smog is not just because of catalytic converters and electric cars. Industry moved away. Ohio creates almost no new steel. That all went to China, India, and Russia.
Likewise, semiconductor fabs need large amounts of ultra-clean water and produce equivalent amounts of polluted water from the wafer wash in the transistor-making process. Many offshore locations let pollution run full bore. But even if modernized fabs have excellent recleaning of exit water methods, the EPA does not want them back on U.S. soil. These bureaucracies have a vision of America as an economy of government intuitions (agencies, courts, police, military), government colleges and K–12 schools, financial businesses, software, and web server business of Facebooks, Twitters and SnapChats as the backbone of its economy.
The chickens are coming home to roost on the fallacy of the USA's last 30 years of political, deindustrialization, and financial priorities. Even Washington State used to have a modem (for its day in the mid-1980s) functioning fabrication facility in Puyallup, 30 miles from Seattle. The building is now used for cable TV truck parking and dentists' offices.
If the bill would provide free land, free clean water in, exit water processing out, and low-cost electricity, that would go a long way to assisting the production of transistors on USA soil.
The USA may even have to rethink how much diversity can be driven into a critically high-tech facility like a fab. Go ask Intel. They have been doubling down on their use of imported engineers for years, and falling farther behind the Far East "tiger" semiconductor economies — as the USA doubles down on college money for the most useless subjects that are literally laughed at overseas.