Opinion: Time for Europe to wake from a 30-year slumber: Page 2 of 3

February 17, 2021 //By Peter Clarke
Opinion: Time for Europe to wake from a 30-year slumber
Over three decades the European Union has let multiple electronics systems industries wither and Europe is now dependent on offshore chipmakers who do not always deliver.

I, amongst many, was asked by AMD representatives back in the late 1980s and early 1990s if 'Fortress Europe' was real. This was the early days of the European Economic Community (EEC) and before the European Union was so named and Fortress Europe was being cartooned on the front covers of influential publications.

I told those executives that it was my opinion that the EEC wanted to reduce tariffs and lower trade barriers. AMD decided to build a fab in Dresden, Germany, anyway, just to make sure they could sell into Europe and avoid the existing but reducing tariffs. For the same reasons Intel decided to build a fab in Leixlip near Dublin, Ireland.

Back then European companies made personal computers in Europe and were in the market for x86 processors. Now there are no globally significant European computer companies.

Later those European wafer fabs – both the inwardly invested and some of the domestically owned ones – migrated to make different forms of ASICs and system-on-chip (SoC) ICs at, or close to, the leading-edge. Some of those SoCs went into mobile phones.

Back then European companies made mobile phones in Europe and were in the market for SoCs. Now, despite the resuscitation of the Nokia phone brand by HMD Global, it can be argued there are no globally significant European mobile phone companies.

What electronics products does Europe make in volume? That would be automobiles, courtesy of Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW and Stellantis BV, the holding company for Peugot, Citroen, Fiat and Chrysler.

Automobiles are amongst the most complex artefacts produced by humans, perhaps ranking only behind aircraft and spacecraft but the high premium set on safety means they almost by definition are not users of leading-edge hardware. So lengthy are the design and approvals processes that automotive companies nearly always use chip manufacturing processes behind the leading-edge.

But automotive semiconductors still rely on the fact that those technologies were previously pioneered for use in high performance computing and smartphones. This means generations of manufacturing processes have been characterized and debugged before they are augmented to meet automotive functional requirements and operating conditions. It is not really possible in the long-term to separate the leading-edge from what has come to be known as More-than-Moore.

What is leading-edge today and used only in smartphones will become the platform for More-than-Moore in five to ten years time. And in any case the rising deployment of on-board artificial intelligence and high bandwidth communications is pushing automotive IC needs towards the leading-edge.

Any politically wished-for improvement in Europe's semiconductor supply chain and strategic capability in semiconductor technology must be seen in this light.

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