How 3D Printing Can Help Relieve the Semiconductor Chip Shortage

By Benny Buller, CEO of Velo3D (VLD)

The chip shortage is impacting just about every industry that relies on up-to-date technology. As TheStreet reported, “Semiconductors power some of the most important computing products today and are arguably the key to economic growth in the digital age.”

In a report this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce explained that even before 2020, “there were already difficulties in obtaining inputs for production,” as well as “an underlying growth in demand for chips as industries shifted to more semiconductor-intensive products (e.g., electric vehicles, 5G). The pandemic exacerbated these trends by dramatically increasing demand for products that require semiconductors of all types. Simultaneously, supply was disrupted by a series of black swan events such as factory fires, winter storms, energy shortages, and COVID-19-related shutdowns.”

Among the ripple effects for investors are reduced earnings for some tech companies and automakers. And the shortage is forecast to continue for at least a couple more years.

Efforts to ramp up production are underway, with the Biden administration and private companies working to tackle the problem. Industries are also looking for new solutions. This is where metal 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, comes in.

The technology does not exist to simply print the microscopic pieces that make up the chips themselves. While my company has developed ways for customers to design and create previously “impossible” geometries, 3D printing works at the 1/10th of a millimeter scale. Semiconductor fabrication plants (also known as “fabs”) work at the nanometer scale (one billionth of a meter).

But there are ways that 3D printing can make a big difference. To see how, you first need a basic understanding of fabs. The Washington Post visited one facility filled with about $10 billion in machinery. Creating a single chip takes about three months. “There are about 700 processing steps along the way, through which dozens of layers of patterns are printed and etched on top of each other, following designs provided by each chip customer,” the Post reported.

Servicing fabs

Since each fab requires thousands of machines that have intricate parts, it takes years to build new fabs and ramp up production at them. In the meantime, the global economy needs existing fabs to operate at the fastest, and most efficient, pace possible. As with any factories, fabs can experience breakdowns and other technical problems, preventing them from running at full capacity.

These kinds of problems are especially likely when factories are working at a breakneck pace. As the Commerce Department’s report noted, “Semiconductor companies have significantly increased the utilization of their existing capacity. Specifically, from Q2 of 2020 through 2021, semiconductor fabs operated at over 90% utilization, which is incredibly high for a production process that requires regular maintenance and very high amounts of energy.”

Any factory working this hard and this fast will need replacement parts. Here, additive manufacturing can step in. 3D metal printing allows for many of these parts to be created quickly. Fab operators should not have to wait for factories overseas to create and ship replacement parts. With 3D printing, they can have parts created by a service provider nearest to them and delivered right away.

An essential element of AM is the repeatability and consistency to achieve precision control at atomic scale. Rather than needing parts to be created by one specific factory in one country that specializes in creating the exact part needed, fab operators can have the exact part printed out anywhere that has a compatible metal 3D printer.

Creating state-of-the-art parts for new fabs

Each new generation of semiconductor fabrication plants delivers more powerful and compact chips than ever before. This means that there are always new ways to redesign the manufacturing process. And 3D printing offers a tremendous opportunity.

The ability to design parts in shapes with no limitations is a game changer for all kinds of manufacturing. If an engineer can imagine it, we can create it. For semiconductor companies, this unleashes ways to design more powerful fabs that yield more powerful chips. (It helps for a 3D printing team to have specific expertise in semiconductors, so they can brainstorm together with manufacturers.)

By working with additive manufacturing, semiconductor companies can design parts to make the new facilities currently being built even more powerful, with fewer failures and improved reliability.

Forward-thinking investors have good reason to look for companies that are embracing this new technology to give themselves a leg up amid the chip shortage. In earnings calls and discussions with investor relations representatives, ask about how corporations are taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by additive manufacturing. At a time of high demand for chips, businesses prioritizing ways to improve the supply will be best positioned to recover losses more quickly, and see gains well into the future.

Benny Buller is founder and CEO of Velo3D, the world's most advanced metal additive manufacturing solution, which allows businesses to achieve previously impossible designs and outcomes, without compromise.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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