Manufacturing and Process Management

Wales seeks to lead in semiconductor innovation

Semiconductor innovation underpins most of the electrical products and technology we use on a daily basis. Combining both physical and chemical properties, it’s played a crucial role in the development of smartphones, tablets, computers and satellite communications.

Not surprisingly, as a market, semiconductor technology is extremely lucrative. According to industrial tech association organisation Semi, the industry posted sales of $335bn in 2015.

Intel, Taiwan Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, ARM and Applied Materials are some of the biggest names in the semiconductor sector, and they’re accelerating growth all across the world. The industry is constantly maturing, and new opportunities are always coming to fruition.

Wales probably isn’t a country you’d associate with the rise and development of semiconductors, but it has ambitious plans to become a pioneering force in the area. Cardiff, the Welsh capital, is quickly becoming a key location for this critical innovation.


New opportunities

Just last year, Cardiff University launched a specialist facility at its Innovation Campus to turn Wales into a catalyst for semiconductors. The Institute of Semiconductors, or ICS, is home to scientists who are looking to turn laboratory research into leading tech products and services.

That’s quite an ambitious aim, but the organisation recently received £13M ($16M) in EU funding to make it a reality. Dr Phil Buckle, who is a semiconductor physicist by trade, has a key role in the centre. He’s been working to expand Cardiff’s reputation for semiconductor development since 2011.

“ICS is a major initiative to put under one roof facilities and expertise that serve industry, and can be utilised by academics as well. It will be industrially driven, so that research that goes on can be translated with minimal cost and effort,” he says.

“The compound semiconductor markets are set to ramp up with the advent of new communications technologies that all rely on compound semiconductors, and so the time is right for such a major innovation centre in the UK.  At the heart, will be a major new large scale cleanroom device fabrication facility.”


Putting Wales on the map

Dr Buckle and his team are confident when it comes to completing their objectives. They want the centre to become a key part of the semiconductor industry not only in the UK and Europe, but also across the globe. “The aims are simple – to supply the UK with an innovation centre capable of taking research standard technology and translating it, in a robust and industrially relevant way for the benefit of UK industries,” he tells us.

The development of the centre is happening quickly, and it’s begun working on some exciting tech projects. It recently joined a £4M ($5M) project, led by the University of Bristol, to research the technologies and infrastructure needed in 5G and 6G mobile phone networks. ICS will take a proactive approach, with teams working on different projects.

Buckle says: “My role so far has been to plan and pull in funds for the sizable and significant infrastructure that is required. We have a two stage plan. The first is to adapt and enhance existing facilities and start to use them in a more professional way. This paves the way for the new facility based on Maindy Road which will be a step change in capability.

“There will be facilities for outreach and industrial workshops, not only to advertise capability, but to enable effective roadmapping, so that academics can understand relevant problems. Researchers have to make choices about future directions, and the intention is always that these should be in a framework where industrial problems are understood. 

“It is not just device fabrication/manufacture at this centre however, as there will also be test and measurement capability. This will enable some small companies to base their business on the facilities that will be available.”


Semiconductor tech will grow

There’s no denying the importance of semiconductor technology in today’s world, and Dr Buckle believes that demand for the innovation will only grow. “Silicon, which dominates the computer processor and memory markets has been the dominant technology up until now, and will remain so for a long time,” he tells IDG Connect.

“However, this next generation of semiconductor technology, compound semiconductors, are at the heart of communication, both in high frequency chips, and those that emit and detect light. Fibre communication, and high bandwidth demand means that we have to look to compound semiconductors to deliver this. Multifunctionality in the Internet of Things will need compound semiconductor technology.”

The Welsh technology industry is the fastest outside London, and semiconductor research and development could serve to accelerate its growth. Aside from ICS, Wales is already home to IQE, a worldwide company that manufacturers compound semiconductor water chips.

“We already have the world’s largest epitaxial compound semiconductor wafer manufacturer (IQE) just along the road in St Mellons, and with the new joint initiative with the university, there is a commitment to grow and expand skilled workforce and knowledge economy in this sector,” he continues.

“The role of knowhow, and expertise cannot be ignored here, and the UK in general has a strong position in this technology, and none more critical than in South Wales. We hope to develop wider interaction with end users and larger multinationals that will drive this technology into markets that give UK businesses competitive edge.”

Buckle says the recent European funding has been critical in making the centre a reality, and it’ll continue to help it acquire essential resources. “The recent WEFO [Welsh European Funding Office] funding is critical. It will enable the purchase of large scale equipment that would be difficult to obtain on research only money. The engagement with industry here is crucial in justifying this type of facility,” he says.

Wales may be a relatively small, quiet country, but that’s not to say it isn’t leading in the world of technology. There have been a ton of major milestones reached in the past few years, and the launch of the Institute of Semiconductors in Cardiff will likely see prosperity continue into the future.


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Nicholas Fearn

Nicholas is a technology journalist from the Welsh valleys. His work has been featured on Engadget, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, TechRadar, The Next Web, Forbes, Computer Weekly, Computing, Mail Online, The Telegraph and many other media outlets. In addition, he edits Tech Dragons, a publication covering STEM in Wales.

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