Program puts national focus on the future of microelectronicsStory
July 22, 2022
A future workforce capable of providing the secure microelectronics that will be needed by the U.S. government and industry are essential to the nation’s economy and security, and a program headed by Purdue University aims to make sure that happens.
Peter Bermel, the Elmore Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue, is heading a national initiative to address the urgent need for engineering graduates to develop defense technologies, especially in the area of microelectronics.
“There is a rapidly developing workforce need in microelectronics and an increasing need for the U.S. to catch up compared with other countries,” Bermel says. “It’s a priority that we ensure students coming out of universities are motivated to work in specific microelectronics areas to drive the U.S. economy and security forward in the future.” (Figure 1.)
[Figure 1 | Purdue University associate professor Peter Bermel heads the national SCALE initiative, which is ensuring that students across the U.S. are motivated to work in specific defense- and security-related fields. Image courtesy Purdue University.]
The Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement Microelectronics Workforce Development program (SCALE) is a $19.2 million multi-university public/private/academic partnership that is intended to foster work force development across engineering universities in the U.S. Bermel leads the SCALE program, which brings faculty across the Purdue College of Engineering together with faculty from 16 universities, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration labs, and the defense industry to create a microelectronics work force focused on national-security needs.
Bermel notes some of the major challenges for current students and the new microelectronics work force in the U.S.: “A decreased number of high-school graduates, a reduced likelihood that they’ll matriculate in two- and four-year degree programs, and increased competition from other STEM fields.” In addition, he sees as major challenges for the current microelectronics workforce upskilling existing workers to keep up with technology developments, as well as increasing eligibility for retirement for a significant fraction of workers.
Students participating in the SCALE network gain experience and hands-on expertise with microelectronics technology both current and emerging, leading them on a path to ensuring that the U.S. builds and strengthens the domestic semiconductor industrial base that underpins national-defense applications and infrastructure. As part of the program, Bermel has developed an advanced secure electronics software and hardware platform serving a broad range of potential users. He also has successfully demonstrated new electronics capable of extended lifetimes under extreme conditions.
Undergrads and graduate students enrolled in SCALE-affiliated programs can access mentoring, internships, and research opportunities at allied companies, universities, and federal research organizations that are focused on microelectronics work force development. Some of SCALE’s university partners include Arizona State University, Georgia Tech, SUNY Binghamton, and Vanderbilt.
Purdue’s role as consortium manager, Bermel states, is to organize the working groups in each technical area. “With that said, we have a technical lead for each area, which is usually another university that takes the lead in developing curriculum, in partnership with the other universities in that area.” Current technology areas of focus include embedded systems/artificial intelligence (AI), radiation hardening, heterogeneous integration, system-on-chip, and supply-chain issues.
One of the most recent forays of the SCALE program is Purdue’s Center for Secure Microelectronics Ecosystem (CSME), which aims to help ensure a secure supply of semiconductor chips and related products and tools, from the foundry to the packaged system, based on a zero-trust model, while giving SCALE students advanced training opportunities.
Alison Smith, education and workforce development co-lead of the trusted and assured microelectronics program at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division – one of the government entities participating in the SCALE program – says that the defense industry must compete for students and workers with critical interdisciplinary skill sets.
“The issue is multifold,” Smith says. “Those of us working in national defense technologies have to compete with these thousands of companies that need the same skill sets; some of our needed skill sets are not currently taught in traditional curricula, and these positions are the hardest to fill because the demand is so much greater than the supply. We also have the additional difficulty of only recruiting domestic students. We need both a trained and a clearable workforce.”
Bermel says that after only a few years in operation, the total number of SCALE students across all universities at last count is 233. “Since the program has grown so fast, only a handful have graduated already, but we expect many more to graduate in the next year or two.”