Analysis and Commentary

Australia’s place in the semiconductor world — Barriers to bringing wafer production home

Analysis and Commentary

Today in Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, Andrew McLellan illustrates a case where local innovation requires overseas fabrication, and why the situation is unlikely to change. 

While improvements in technology and knowledge have driven significant advances in life sciences and healthcare industries in recent decades, methods for identifying and tracking important biological samples stored in extreme temperatures – like stem cells, blood, sperm, eggs and other biospecimens – remain stuck in the dark ages.

Current tracking methods include hand-written and pre-printed labels, barcodes and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Each tracking method has its own limitations, potentially compromising these valuable samples, and are not commensurate with the value and importance of the stored items. 

My company, Bluechiip, is delivering a unique and patented technology that operates across a wide temperature range, from -196°C to over +100°C, creating an ideal system for tracking and managing sensitive samples.

Bluechiip Enabled Technology provides the ability to track and store sample-level data across the entire cold chain process,. and our opportunity covers 300 million samples a year in a global market worth more than $1 billion.

Our tags are either embedded or manufactured into storage products such as vials or bags. Each product is easily identified and critical information – such as contents, ownership and the history of sample temperatures – is detected by readers and stored in the Bluechiip software, improving both productivity and quality.

Despite the fact that our IP was developed in Australia, we currently use an overseas third-party fabrication facility to manufacture our core microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) chips on 8-inch silicon wafers, each of which is then sliced to produce 13,000 chips. Chips are packaged onto antennae – a process that also takes place overseas – which are then attached to vials, bags etc

Our intellectual property is based around a specific group of semiconductors that are manufactured in a similar process to standard semiconductors, but modified to allow them to sense and record temperature in liquid nitrogen (−196 °C).

As much as Bluechiip would like to buy these wafers, and produce the chips locally to support Australian industry, no such capability exists here. This represents a significant opportunity for Australian industry. Despite that, we are an Australian company with a core IP that was developed in Australia, and we have no intention of moving elsewhere.

Currently, I see no great appetite for wafers such as ours to be produced here. Although it is theoretically possible, the investment required is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only does there appear to be no appetite from either government or industry to make it a reality, there is a significant gap in the very high skill levels required for such manufacturing.

For Australia to embrace the manufacturing of semiconductors, governments and industry need to encourage retention and training of the right people, as well as investing in semiconductor manufacturing plants and processes. 

We should start with a niche industry like semiconductor packaging, where devices manufactured on wafers are assembled into electrical components and subsequently included into devices and saleable products. 

The irony is that Australia has great research bases, including the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication and Australian Synchrotron, both located at or near CSIRO and Monash University in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton. Both facilities allow for early-stage R&D, but this cannot translate even to volume prototypes.

The Australian government should support Australian innovation and technologies, invest in people and plants, as well as encouraging collaboration between public and private commercial enterprises and research infrastructure.

Andrew McLellan is Managing Director of Bluechiip Ltd.

@AuManufacturing and AUS-Semiconductor-Community’s editorial series, Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, is brought to you with the support of ANFF.


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