Paul van Gerven
18 March 2021

The European Union wants at least 20 percent of the world’s cutting-edge microelectronics produced in Europe. Technologically, it’s feasible, says Imec’s chief strategy officer, Jo De Boeck, but there are more obstacles to overcome.

Last week, the European Commission presented the Digital Compass, a set of avenues, visions and targets shaping the bloc’s ambition towards “digital sovereignty” by 2030. One important pillar of the package is for Europe to become “less dependent on others when it comes to key technologies,” said Eurocommissioner Margethe Vestager. “This is why by 2030, we want at least 20 percent of the world’s cutting-edge microelectronics produced in Europe.”

This seems a daunting task. Europe’s own chipmakers left the scaling game over a decade ago, and for the handful of companies still in it, the continent doesn’t seem to be a particularly attractive place to build a fab. It might start making sense if there would be high demand for leading-edge CMOS around these parts, but, at present at least, this isn’t the case.

Imec Jo De Boeck

But there is, of course, still one organization in Europe left that’s heavily involved in cutting-edge semiconductor development: Imec. What does the Leuven research institute, which has all of the world’s remaining chip scaling companies as customers, think about the EU’s semiconductor ambitions? Bits&Chips talked to Jo De Boeck, the Leuven research institute’s chief strategy officer.

Almost a decade ago, former Eurocommissioner Neelie Kroes also announced a 20 percent European market share target by 2020. Despite major public investments, this goal hasn’t been achieved. What happened?

ASML special

De Boeck: “In the end, it was decided to bolster typical European semiconductor strengths, such as automotive, industrial and sensing ICs. This included some investments to expand semiconductor manufacturing, but obviously, not for scaling efforts – it’s no secret that our companies opt to have their advanced silicon, in so much they require it, manufactured where it’s produced most cost-effectively. Nonetheless, these have been important investments, of which Europe has yet to reap the benefits.”

Do you think this time it will be different?

“The changed geopolitical situation has left the EU wondering whether it hasn’t become overly dependent on other regions for the supply of certain key technologies, particularly semiconductors. This is especially true when considering future applications. Even if they don’t need them right now, applications such as automotive electronics, communications infrastructure, AI and Industry 4.0 will increasingly depend on leading-edge semiconductor technology. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to contemplate how Europe can secure and guarantee its supply.”

“Nonetheless, it’s going to take years and a lot of effort before Europe is ready to even consider building a fab. You can’t simply skip multiple nodes; we need to take steps towards it. At Imec, we believe Europe should continue to strengthen our strong base in R&D, manufacturing equipment and materials. When the basic technology is ready, we should bring companies together and start pilot production lines for promising applications that will be relevant for our industries and society. Once production-readiness is in reach, perhaps building a leading-edge fab makes sense. Another option is to consider bringing in a leading-edge player to accelerate this process.”

“When the time comes, we’ll have to see whether any option can be justified. Strictly from an economic perspective, leading-edge fabs cost billions, only work on a large scale and they need to operate at high capacity to make a profit. Would it be possible to get enough orders to fill it up? On the other hand, if reducing Europe’s technological dependency is considered paramount, the economics take a back seat. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can always buy more technological sovereignty. I don’t think it’s sensible to speculate right now on what decision should be made.”

Is Imec prepared to support these efforts?

“Yes, we consider it to be our responsibility as an organization rooted in Europe. We have cutting-edge research to offer, and working with other European companies and organizations, we believe that we can help to derisk the ambitions of the European Commission.”

“One way forward to the most advanced nodes, for example, could be for Europe to select a disruptive semiconductor technology ‘recipe’ that Imec is currently investigating for, say, the 2nm node. We typically offer three choices to our clients, from which they pick one to develop further in-house. Europe could also pick one, make its own development choices and implement it on the pilot lines. This opens up the possibility of creating a disruptive European IC technology. I’m quite optimistic about that succeeding, actually. But that’s still only the technology part of the equation.”

Recently, ASML CEO Peter Wennink advised against breaking up what he called the frictionless global semiconductor ecosystem that has taken decades to build. Doesn’t he have a point?

“As an organization that has always operated internationally, Imec doesn’t like to see the global semiconductor ecosystem broken up either. It goes against our DNA. However, recent developments, such as the global chip shortage, and the geopolitical forces currently at play warrant looking into decreasing Europe’s dependencies. Note that this isn’t the same as seeking complete technological sovereignty – and I don’t believe the European Commission is aiming for that.”

Considering the trajectory you sketched out, is 2030 a realistic target for Europe to gain a 20 percent market share in cutting-edge electronics?

“It’s a political target. 2030 is far enough in the future to sound realistic, yet close enough to be ambitious. Governments and politics have a role to play, but setting targets, by itself, won’t accelerate technological development.”