Betting on Made-in-America Computer Chips: a Progress Report

Professor Ronnie Chatterji of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business played a key role in crafting and implementing a landmark bill known as the CHIPS and Science Act. A year after its passage, experts from academia, government, industry met at Duke to discuss the progress made so far and the challenges that remain. Credit: HuthPhoto

About 160 people signed up to attend the Nov. 3 event, co-sponsored by the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law, the Fuqua School of Business, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Duke Faculty Advancement. Credit: HuthPhoto

During the pandemic, surges in demand for gadgets like PCs and game consoles highlighted vulnerabilities in the chip supply chain. When chip factories in Taiwan and elsewhere shut down in 2020, the makers of cars and other products didn’t get the chips they needed, and prices went up.

Semiconductor technology was invented in the United States, but America’s share of global chip-making has dropped from 37% in the 1990s to about 10% today. Mostly this has been driven by economics. Taiwan, South Korea and China offer government incentives to chip-makers that the U.S. does not.

“If you look at it from a cost perspective, it is 30% to 50% more expensive to build a fabrication plant and run it in the U.S. versus somewhere in Asia,” said Jaison Justin of Boston Consulting Group, which co-authored a joint report on trends in chip manufacturing in America. “So there is a very clear, non-level playing field.”

Because of that, about 75% of chips are made in East Asia, raising concerns that another pandemic, a natural disaster or escalating tensions between China and Taiwan could put America’s chip supply in jeopardy.

This is where the CHIPS Act comes in. The legislation aims to increase chip production in the U.S., and in turn, bolster national security by decreasing reliance on foreign countries.

Industry representatives at the meeting from Samsung, Wolfspeed and Intel said that while $52 billion is a “drop in the bucket” -- companies will also have to invest significantly -- it’s a move in the right direction.

In fact, since the CHIPS Act was signed into law, U.S. companies have pledged more than $200 billion to new projects such as building semiconductor fabrication plants -- investments that are expected to create some 44,000 jobs.

“The CHIPS and Science Act is a significant policy achievement in our nation's research enterprise,” said Duke Provost Alec Gallimore. “Not only did it inject much-needed investment to grow the country's global leadership in semiconductors; it set forth an ambitious framework for growth for the federal agencies that support researchers and students at Duke as well as elsewhere.”

“Until we can get to a quantum computing era, we’re going to be dependent on semiconductors for future computing needs,” said Dean Jerome Lynch of the Pratt School of Engineering.

“Implementing the CHIPS Act is very challenging and there are many potential points of failure in terms of geopolitics, business strategy, permitting and workforce," Chatterji said. "But we have to get this right, both for national security and economic reasons. It is that imperative that kept me going when I served in the White House and what drives the team doing the work today."

"I also appreciate and learn from the reasonable critiques of this historic initiative since we are trying to accomplish things we have never done before," Chatterji added. "Many things will have to go right for CHIPS to succeed.”

Duke Law professors Arti Rai (left) and Stuart Benjamin (not shown), both co-directors of the Center for Innovation Policy, organized the half-day event along with Fuqua's Ronnie Chatterji. Credit: HuthPhoto