The NSW Government will invest $4m in a centre of gravity for Australia’s nascent semiconductor design industry, setting up an “enormous opportunity” for the state’s local talent to assert itself in the global market for supply of crucial chips.

To be hosted by “home of deep tech” Cicada Innovations and located in Sydney’s Tech Central precinct, the new Semiconductor Sector Service Bureau (S3B) will tap expertise from three universities, the CSIRO, and the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF).

The S3B “will build connectivity and collaboration, and support commercial impact,” inaugural S3B director and technical director of the ANFF’s University of Sydney site Dr Nadia Court said in announcing the creation of the S3B.

“It will play a key role in advocating for the sector, connecting companies and researchers with design and manufacturing capabilities globally.”

Participants the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, and UNSW Sydney will tap their broad and deep expertise in semiconductor design to turn the S3B into a hub for industry collaboration.

That expertise includes, for example, joint work by Macquarie University and CSIRO to develop early WiFi technologies and newer work around millimetre-wave monolithic integrated circuits (MMIC), Macquarie University School of Engineering dean Professor Darren Bagnall noted as the S3B was announced.

“For decades, Macquarie University has been at the cutting edge of integrated circuit design,” he said. “Our researchers are proud to be able to lend their expertise to S3B to drive innovation in this space.”

Sydney University’s expertise with the ANFF will support the S3B with expertise in nanofabrication techniques – crucial to manufacturing today’s ever smaller and more powerful semiconductors – with University of Sydney Nano Institute deputy director Dr Omid Kavehei noting that the S3B will leverage university capabilities in areas like microelectronics design, fabrication and packaging.

Tapping expertise “within Core Research Facilities and faculties has great potential to support the S3B initiative’s goal of building sovereign capabilities,” Kavehei said, “and creating a high-tech talent pool for growing this strategically important sector.”

Building on NSW's strengths

The hub, which will run for an initial five years, targets what NSW Minister for Science, Innovation and Technology Alister Henskens called “an enormous opportunity to secure a brighter future for NSW by accelerating our participation in the global semiconductor market.”

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption, the semiconductor industry has been investing to recover and in April posted a 21.1 per cent year-on-year sales growth, to $71.7b ($US50.9b), according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

The total market for semiconductors reached $783b ($US556b) in 2021, with the US already using targeted legislation and industry development plans to address problematic chip shortages that have disrupted product supply chains of the likes of Apple, Tesla, and many others.

Semiconductor design was flagged as one of the key opportunities for Australian R&D within the recent NSW 20-Year R&D Roadmap, which in turn drew on the 2020 Australian Semiconductor Sector Study that canvassed more than 100 local experts.

Last October, that study led the NSW Government to call for tenders to host the S3B to address the fact that, despite having extensive semiconductor design expertise in universities and broader companies, Australia has no companies focused on semiconductor design.

The S3B won’t involve creation of massively expensive semiconductor fabrication plants – industry giants Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Intel, and Samsung, for example, have recently committed $62b ($US44b), $49b ($US35b), and $28.2 billion ($US20b) respectively to new facilities – but it will unify previously-disparate capabilities to create significant opportunities in medical, military, space, and other areas.

“Compared with other parts of the world, Australia’s semiconductor sector is comparatively small,” said UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications associate professor Torsten Lehmann.

“Given our talent and education levels, we should be a much bigger, global player in this space,” he said, calling the S3B “a fantastic opportunity to grow the sector here.”