Now that the 2022 midterm elections are behind us, we can look forward to the 118th Congress beginning their work on Jan. 3, 2023. The ongoing effort to build secure and resilient supply chains will be front and center on their agenda.
On the heels of everything that has been done to invest in semiconductor reshoring, some might ask why further action is needed.
The CHIPs and Science Act that passed earlier this year was an important first step. But unless we invest in the entire microelectronics ecosystem, it won’t be enough. A complex technology stack including semiconductors, substrates, and printed circuit boards makes almost all modern technologies possible. The entire ecosystem matters, and we can’t simply invest in one layer and expect to achieve the result we’re seeking.
In the case of printed circuit boards, there is a considerable challenge: Over the past two decades, domestic production of printed circuit boards decreased from 26% to 4% of global market share. In that same period, the industry shrunk from nearly 2,500 U.S.-based companies to fewer than 150.
This erosion has real implications for critical systems, but what do we mean by “critical” anyway?
Until now, the definition has been narrowly applied to aerospace and defense technologies. The Pentagon recognized decades ago that modern weapons systems—everything from submarines to night vision goggles—rely on microelectronics and directed U.S. industry to produce those technologies here at home.
Today that strict definition is outdated. Because of the way commercial and defense technologies are intertwined, there is no way to limit critical technologies to military applications. Nations, including the United States, are using economic and industrial policies across multiple industry verticals to influence geopolitical outcomes.
The time has come for policymakers to understand that banking, telecommunications, energy, transportation, and healthcare are also vital to our national security. All these sectors are powered by microelectronics and should be considered critical. This has implications for policies that take a holistic view of all the industry verticals that drive our economic and national security.
What are the common elements our nation needs to make this happen?
We need to invest in a broad and sustainable base of high-tech manufacturing and form public/private partnerships to both train the skilled workforce and invest in areas like microelectronics that are the foundation of every industry vertical in our modern world.
Bringing high-tech manufacturing back to the United States and having a world-class workforce does more than shore up the economy; it makes our nation more secure. Policymakers need to understand that industrial policy is national security policy and expand their thinking to include a broader definition of what constitutes a critical sector.
PCBs are just one example of a foundational microelectronic that makes modern life possible and that’s why they need a secure and reliable domestic supply chain. The Printed Circuit Board Association of America was formed to educate, advocate, and legislate with this outcome in mind.
This column originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine.