The CHIPS Act has unlocked endless opportunities for U.S. chipmakers as the country seeks to regain its status as a dominant force in the semiconductor industry. However, its provisions focus on short-term production and securing the supply chain. Given the rapid rate of development in the chip sector, a future-looking approach is also needed. Enter The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The agency recently unveiled a new program called Next-Generation Microelectronics Manufacturing (NGMM) that seeks to establish a domestic hub for cutting-edge chip fabrication technologies. Its primary focus will be 3D heterogeneously integrated microsystems (3DHI), which are touted as the future of advanced chip production. The goal is to begin operations at the center by 2029—just in time for the chip industry to reach $1 trillion in 2030.
DARPA is no stranger to ambitious, forward-looking programs. Its renewed interest in the chip sector is a positive sign for the U.S. given the importance of securing a robust domestic supply chain and bolstering innovation over the coming decade.
In a statement announcing the new program, DARPA commented, “Presently, the U.S. has no open-access manufacturing center with comprehensive capacity for 3DHI research and development. Anticipating that the next major wave of microelectronics innovation will come from the ability to integrate heterogenous materials, devices, and circuits through advanced packaging, DARPA proposes to stand up a national accelerator specifically for next-generation 3DHI.”
This technology is expected to play a significant role in the years ahead. Manufacturers believe they can significantly improve chip performance by decoupling memory and processing through novel chip packaging and integration techniques. Work in this area is already yielding benefits, such as chiplet technology, which has allowed manufacturers to generate sizeable speed increases without shrinking components or adding more transistors.
Unsurprisingly, other leading chip nations are also pursuing 3DHI technology. Taiwan has a particularly strong interest since it currently makes the majority of the world’s most advanced semiconductors.
The new DARPA program is set up in multiple phases. Earlier this year, the agency chose 11 teams to launch foundational efforts for the center. However, DARPA now plans to narrow that field down to just one team for the subsequent two phases.
Phase one consists of equipment buying and developing processes to support 3DHI production. This entails designing new fabrication processes and automation software. The NGMM’s second phase further progresses the effort by focusing on hardware prototypes and additional automation.
Funding for each phase will come from both DARPA and the chosen team. While it’s unclear how much the selected participant will contribute, DARPA plans to issue awards of up to $420 million for each phase.
In a statement, DARPA said, “The end goal of the program is to establish a self-sustaining 3DHI manufacturing center at an existing facility that is owned and operated by a non-federal entity, and accessible to users in academia, government, and industry.”
“Success will be measured by the ability to support the design, fabrication, assembly, and test a wide range of high-performance 3DHI microsystems at a reasonable cost with cycle times supporting fast-paced, innovative research,” it added.