American companies provide just 3 percent of chip packaging. But now the U.S. aims to master chiplet packaging. While stacks of these small elements improve performance, most are produced in Asia.

For more than 50 years, designers of computer chips mainly used one tactic to improve performance : They shrank electronic  components to pack more power onto each piece of silicone.

Then, more than a decade ago, engineers at the chip maker Advanced Micro Devices began toying with a radical idea.

Instead of designing one big microprocessor with vast numbers of tiny transistors, they conceived of creating one from smaller chips that would be packaged tightly together to work like one electronic brain.

The concept, sometimes called chiplets, caught on in a big way, and AMD, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, IBM and Intel introduced such products. Chiplets rapidly gained traction because smaller chips are cheaper to make, and bundles of them can outperform any single slice of silicon.

The strategy, based on advanced packaging technology, has since become an essential tool for enabling progress in semiconductors. And it represented one of the biggest shifts in years for an industry that drives innovations in fields like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and military hardware.

''Packaging is where the action is going to be,'' said Subramanian Iyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped pioneer the chiplet concept. ''It's happening because there is actually no other way.''

The catch is that such packaging, like making chips, is overwhelmingly dominated by companies in Asia. Although the United States accounts for around 12 percent of global semiconductor production, American companies provide just 3 percent of chip packaging, according to IPC, a trade association.

That issue has landed chiplets in the middle of U.S. industrial policymaking. The CHIPS Act, a $ 52 billion subsidy package that was passed last summer, was seen as President Biden's move to reinvigorate domestic chip making by providing money to build more sophisticated factories called ''fabs.''

But part of it was also aimed at stoking advanced packaging factories in the United States to capture more of that essential process.

'' As chips get smaller, the way you arrange chips, which is packaging, is more and more important, and we need it done in America,'' Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, said in a speech at Georgetown University in February.

The Commerce Department is accepting applications for manufacturing grants from the CHIPS Act, including grants for chip packaging factories. It is also allocating funding to a research program that is focused on advanced packaging.

The Master Global Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks author Don Clark.


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