Interview with Leu Jang-hwa, director general of the Industrial Development Bureau (IDB), Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), and Yeh Wen-kuan, director general of the Taiwan Semiconductor Research Institute (TSRI)
Sustaining Innovation through Fostering Top Talent
Taiwan plays a critical role in the global semiconductor industry value chain. With a global market share of over 70 percent, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry boasts the world’s highest gross production value in foundry manufacturing. According to the Taiwan Semiconductor Industry Association (TSIA), the semiconductor industry accounted for 15 percent of Taiwan’s GDP in 2019. The semiconductor industry has been influential in Taiwan’s industrial development and economic growth. Its cutting-edge manufacturing and comprehensive industry clusters are second to none in the world. To maintain this lead, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) is carrying out the Generation Å Semiconductor Project (Å - a unit of length equal to 0.1 nanometer) and investing NT$1.54 billion over the next five years to support the first phase of the Industrial PhDs Training Program (Post Doctoral Program).
Leu Jang-hwa, director general of the Industrial Development Bureau (IDB), Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), states that since 2016, the IDB has aided manufacturers to embrace applied Internet of Things (IoT) and AI technology, ushering the semiconductor industry toward advancement and transformation. In efforts to foster talent in core AI fields, IDB and MOST worked together from 2019–2020 to deploy talent development projects aimed at transforming and upgrading the semiconductor industry through the integration of AI technology. Further, for talent development in semiconductor enterprises, the Intelligent Electronics Institute Initiative has been launched to assess talent demands, establish occupational competency standards, and foster collaborative research between industry and academia. These measures have helped refine talent training systems and clarify talent demands and gaps to encourage talent flow. To date, over 50,000 individuals have undergone training to become talent in various sectors of the semiconductor industry.
The rapid development of big data, AI, IoT, and autonomous vehicles have increased the demand for semiconductors and talent. Yeh Wen-kuan, director general of the Taiwan Semiconductor Research Institute (TSRI), points out that the outstanding performance of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is the result of decades of university investments and government policies directed toward talent development and education. To cultivate top tech talent for the industry, MOST is implementing projects such as establishing semiconductor technology colleges and working with TSRI to provide master’s and doctoral students internship and educational training. As a result, over 1,600 semiconductor designers and 300 semiconductor production talent enter the field of nanodevice research each year. These incoming mid-to-high level researchers have served to further enhance the value of Taiwan’s national-level laboratories.
Preparing for the 1nm Revolution through Semiconductor Colleges
Taiwan is the current leader in the semiconductor industry. However, the United States, Japan, and Korea are actively in pursuit, not to mention continued threats from Chinese supply chains. The Executive Yuan has enacted two policies—the Statutes for Industry-Academic Collaboration and the Innovational Talent Development Labs in Key Domestic Disciplines—to support top-tier talent in the next generation of cutting-edge foundry production and prepare for the rise of 1nm technology. Leu states these policies will provide flexibility in organization, human resources, financial affairs, equipment, facilities, and assets for higher education institutions and allow corporations to provide funding, qualified instructors, and researchers. These exchanges between industry, government, and academia will accelerate the spread of knowledge, technology transfer, and industrial application of academic research. These efforts to swiftly advance nanotechnology will sustain Taiwan’s leading position in the semiconductor industry.
Yeh believes that Taiwan’s global leadership in advanced semiconductor manufacturing can be attributed in part to its success in R&D and talent development. Beyond this, the comprehensive industry clusters in Hsinchu Science Park have been key to spearheading Taiwan’s development of cutting-edge manufacturing technology and state-of-the-art facilities. The TSRI, based in Hsinchu Science Park, is a training base for semiconductor talent and is taking action, along with MOST, to create the next generation of future-oriented materials. Yeh additionally states that the establishment of semiconductor colleges in National Taiwan University, National Cheng Kung University, National Tsing Hua University, and National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University will allow government and industry resources to facilitate intercollegiate and interdisciplinary R&D and innovation, enabling swift integration of research in industry.
Creating an Advanced Manufacturing Industry Value Chain through Semiconductor Manufacturing Equipment Localization
Leu notes that Taiwan’s market demand for semiconductor equipment in 2020 was roughly US$16.8 billion (approximately NT$504 billion) according to SEMI (formerly known as Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International). This accounted for 24 percent of the global equipment market demand, making it the world’s second-largest market. In recent years, total domestic purchases of semiconductor equipment have reached NT$1.9 trillion, with front-end wafer equipment accounting for 74 percent and advanced packaging equipment 14 percent. However, given that the majority of this equipment is imported, localization of equipment manufacturing has become a crucial goal. MOEA has drafted plans aligned with two core objectives: localizing foreign equipment manufacturing and localizing production of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. More specifically, the Generation Å Semiconductor Project, according to Leu, is encouraging the development of domestically-produced equipment and assisting manufacturers in resolving R&D and funding issues.
Leu also states that front-end wafer manufacturing is the most critical step in producing semiconductor components, noting that the equipment required for production is expensive. Further, the wafers need client approval, and these quality and yield demands from clients have placed manufacturers under great risk and pressure. Through last year's Independent Industry Exchange to Improve the Semiconductor Equipment Industry Value Chain, major domestic semiconductor equipment manufacturers were invited to discuss and resolve localization issues. With the majority of existing equipment supplied by foreign companies, the government is further facilitating a thematic subsidy program to encourage the localization of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The Semiconductor Equipment Verification Program assists domestic semiconductor equipment manufacturers (including advancing packaging equipment) to pass terminal factory quality verification. Leu emphasizes that most domestic semiconductor equipment manufacturers are small and medium-sized enterprises, and long verification periods bring massive R&D pressure and risks of failure for these companies. Providing government subsidies will thus streamline the process for manufacturers to pass production line tests required by clients. Extending this toward other semiconductor manufacturing processes can also increase domestic equipment output value. Leu notes that MOEA, to strengthen the industrial ecosystem, will carry out strategic upgrades in equipment, key materials, semiconductor technology, and talent development to improve the digital economy. Within ten years, the addition of NT$1.2 trillion in semiconductor investments is estimated to produce an output value of up to NT$5 trillion. Taiwan will continue to promote its semiconductor industry ecosystem in the future to take on an important role in the global advanced semiconductor manufacturing supply chain.
Continuing Industry Dominance through Generation Å Semiconductor R&D
Drafted by the Executive Yuan's Board of Science and Technology and implemented by an inter-ministerial committee, the Generation Å Semiconductor Project lays the groundwork for Taiwan to create new-generation chips and reduce its dependence on other countries for semiconductor equipment. Yeh asserts that Taiwan's strong scientific R&D capabilities will allow the domestic semiconductor industry to keep thriving in the future. Semiconductor wafers have been reduced from 3,000 nanometers to a size of only 2 nanometers. Although traditional miniaturization methods for semiconductor components are gradually approaching their limits, Yeh believes Taiwan will continue to push the boundaries. MOST is actively promoting the Generation Å Semiconductor Project, which includes key angstrom-scale semiconductor inspection technologies and semiconductor component materials. Through collaborations between industry and academia, MOST is also exploring key technologies for sub-nano semiconductor devices and chips to maintain Taiwan's position as a global leader.
Only by challenging the physical limits of semiconductor component materials, new opportunities can be discovered. Yeh believes MOST’s Generation Å Semiconductor Project will prepare Taiwan for the next decade of technology development. Taiwan has now mastered independent forward-looking technology R&D, compared with its past reliance on the United States. This has opened up new opportunities for the country’s semiconductor industry. Moving forward, tech industries must form interdisciplinary research teams composed of talents from physics, chemistry, materials, microelectronics, instrument technology, and other fields. Only then will the semiconductor industry have the chance to develop materials, components, and other related technologies that are cutting edge and commercially competitive. By creating new solutions through innovative thinking and breaking from existing frameworks, Taiwan's semiconductor industry will continue to lead the world.