Smart Manufacturing: Experts Weigh in on Talent Shortage and Solutions
The acute chip shortage is laying bare the semiconductor industry’s talent shortage. Chip industry leaders and government officials are exploring fixes involving industry investments, training infrastructure, government policies and more investment as academia casts about for collaboration opportunities and ways to strengthen and scale skills development.
Smart Manufacturing personifies some of the main problems: insufficient formal training opportunities, a lack of industry and education collaboration to meet the needs, a rapidly mutating set of skills, and lack of opportunity to test new skills. The shortage is a clarion call for updated curriculum as the chip industry clamors for a new classification of skills for managing the massive amount of data being generated by automation and applying it to manufacturing flows.
In this article, several experts weigh in on considerations for developing the smart manufacturing workforce that will help to alleviate the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing talent shortage, even as multiple, data-intensive $1 billion to $10 billion fabrication facilities come online.
Can Existing Fabs Afford Smart Manufacturing Innovation?
The U.S. is home to more than 200 semiconductor fabrication facilities according to the SEMI Fab Database, including R&D, prototype and full production lines. The vast majority of these fabs process small wafers in small batches and are not optimized for new smart manufacturing tools.
Engineering students who have entered the field are often discouraged by the paucity of opportunities to innovate in existing fabs. According to UCLA Engineering Professor Subramanian Iyer, fewer U.S. college students are interested in working in semiconductor manufacturing due to what they see as a lack of related job opportunities for new graduates. A common view is that electronics manufacturing is a poor career option since they would be working with dated technology.
“Fab operators have limited resources and face investment decisions when weighing the cost of building very expensive next generation fabs that drive innovation -– against maximizing operational efficiency of their existing fabs,” said industry leader and IEEE fellow Dan Gamota. “They are risk-averse and often reluctant to take on the risks of incorporating new manufacturing innovations and the multibillion-dollar costs associated with them. These companies are not training their workforces on new technology. Rather, they, understandably, focus their workforce on maximizing output of the existing fab investments.”
The internal convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) has been recognized by the industry for some time. More recently however, has been the emergence of an engineering technology (ET) function to support fabs, including the equipment and their automation and connection.
“A high degree of collaboration between IT/OT and ET is essential to realizing the benefits of smart manufacturing,” Gamota said. “The tools required to generate and manipulate data to create digital twins are unique to the ET tool bag. The technological savvy of the ET community is a generation ahead of IT and OT, and the three communities aren’t collaborating – stalling innovation, hindering the integration of new technologies, and delaying time-to-market of leading-edge electronics.”
As the U.S. industry offshored manufacturing in the last few decades, talent development, product development and manufacturing became disconnected, giving rise to the talent shortage. Separating manufacturing automation from product design and development slowed manufacturing innovation, and many students turned away from pursuing high-tech manufacturing careers.
The Evolving Manufacturing Skill Set
The use of digital twins, advanced analytics, and innovative robotics is transforming the semiconductor manufacturing industry and could transform education. According to James Moyne of the University of Michigan and consultant to Applied Materials, this is a natural evolution from workers being on the line to employees working to automate the line. “Innovation is still a human role – and there is a lot of innovation in smart manufacturing for a capital-intensive industry such as semiconductor manufacturing,” he said.
So, while smart manufacturing may reduce the number of workers needed to operate a factory line, more are needed with a unique set of data analysis and application skills. Moyne notes that 10% to 20% of new manufacturing jobs require multi-disciplinary engineers with a highly sophisticated skills set.
Universities Need to Retool their Curricula
This new breed of workers needs to be skilled in and specialized in using data and digital tools to manufacture smarter. Gamota and others in the smart manufacturing field are working with a number of universities to retool their curriculum to take these rapidly evolving technologies into account.
Smart manufacturing needs broad thinkers – people who are able to use creative, out-of-the-box thinking and combine knowledge from fields including physics, predictive analytics, chemistry, and robotics to solve problems. Regardless of a person’s range of knowledge, few people have the skill to draw from these disciplines to solve complex problems and innovate.
Academia’s approach to learning has always been to move from teaching general knowledge at the bachelor’s degree level, and then to more specific knowledge at graduate levels, working towards creating subject matter experts at the Ph.D. level.
Universities can better groom new manufacturing talent by supporting and re-establishing strong facilities that connect engineering, science, and the arts with foundational IT and computing skills, and better prepare students for future jobs through a multidisciplinary curriculum.
One way to cultivate the talent that will allow the U.S. to keep up with the innovation curve is for universities to coordinate and become more agile in fostering multidisciplinary skills. SEMI is participating in the proposal to establish the American Semiconductor Academy (ASA) with the objective to encourage greater collaboration between universities and industry to address workforce development needs of U.S. semiconductor manufacturing.
University Research Also Critical for the Industry
Accuracy and precision are critical aspects of semiconductor manufacturing. New advances in robotics, AI, and machine learning are helping manufacturers increase precision and control costs to remain competitive. With no room for error in a fab environment, fab operators are disinclined to experiment with new practices.
“Margins drive industry behavior, while discoveries drive university performance,” Gamota said, noting that the chip industry can’t afford to spend vast amounts of money on research and experimentation.
Another gap is that the semiconductor industry and academia operate on vastly different time scales. Fabs are geared towards fast production cycles, while the industry depends on universities for research to help drive innovation. Thus, universities need to ensure they are training students using modern equipment. Gamota points out that government can help by funding advanced research facilities, training simulations and possibly even matching grants for internships.
Universities provide a safe space for experimentation and ideation. Both industry and academia benefit from the exchange of education, talent, and expertise.
Industry Apprenticeships and Internships Offer Valuable Experience
Experts strongly support the development of more apprenticeships and internships to give students practical experience in exploring how to solve real-world problems. Today’s fabs, with their focus on maintaining efficiency, are not ideal places to experiment with new ideas, nor are they conducive to brainstorming and knowledge sharing. The focus is on working to keep production at 100% yield without defects.
“Students quickly learn that the majority of activities such as IT/OT are ROI-driven today,” said Gamota, who’s experienced in manufacturing internships. “Internships allow little time for students to balance innovating thinking with their day-to-day education. But it is by sharing and fostering dialogue between academia and industry that students can integrate what they’re studying with what’s practical for the fab now.”
Outside of the fab, Dr. James Moyne has found significant success with internships. Moyne leads a unique student internship program in partnership with the University of Cincinnati. Students create programs that are directly integrated into Applied’s software. The program is a win-win for both parties and allows the students to see how their work directly benefits industry, and industry benefits from the students’ knowledge of leading-edge tools and processes. Based on its interaction with interns, industry can make better hiring choices based on actual experiences versus what’s revealed on a resume.
Moyne is especially gratified when he sees students easily cross over disciplines to see the big picture – a skill suited to a career in smart manufacturing. University faculty who understands the industry can play a vital role in matching students to the type of jobs (and companies and sectors) best suited for their strengths and interests.
Apprenticeship models are also being proposed across the country to tighten the bond between training providers and the industry. SEMI is working with more than 15 member companies, workforce development boards, economic councils, community colleges, universities, support service providers, state governments and federal programs to develop the SEMI Career & Apprenticeship Network (SCAN). The goal of the initiative is to help develop a strong and diverse workforce by providing access to training for the skills needed for students to succeed in the industry. The training will be offered under the tutelage of seasoned workers who help design and build semiconductor equipment and process software.
Bringing Manufacturing Back
U.S. semiconductor manufacturing is now a national priority. The CHIPS Act, which Congress is considering for funding as of this writing, allocates $52 billion in grants and subsidies and is designed to help revive the U.S. semiconductor industry.
Workforce development figures prominently in the original bill, which would allocate US$5.22 billion for STEM student scholarships, $8.43 billion for STEM workforce programs, and $9.57 billion for university technology centers and innovation institutes. These funds are crucial for the U.S. semiconductor industry to remain competitive globally.
SEMI strongly supports all efforts to fund programs focused on developing the next generation workforce and new curricula, as well as unique coordinated models that will attract, develop, recruit and retain the workers needed to keep advanced manufacturing in the U.S. SEMI and the SEMI Foundation have been taking a holistic approach with programs at many levels of the workforce.
SEMI Foundation and SEMI Smart Manufacturing will work together to ensure the proposals include formal and experiential training in the latest data science and engineering technology techniques and experience the enormous satisfaction of refining complex processes.
A National Policy to Bring Manufacturing Back?
At the university level, the U.S. government must fund grants to modernize the equipment or develop the simulation models needed to train the new workforce. Government can help both industry and academia by providing matching grants for internships and apprenticeships to make it easier and faster for ROI-driven fabs to experiment and innovate.
The semiconductor industry’s talent shortage will not be solved without dedicated collaboration of industry, academia, and the government in every aspect of semiconductor manufacturing. Whether through retuning university curriculums, industry-sponsored research, or government investment, eliminating the talent shortage will take time. The decline in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing unfolded over several decades. Reshoring and reinvigorating the industry will also be measured in decades.
Heidi Hoffman is senior director of Corporate Marketing at SEMI.