Process Knowledge and the Semiconductor Industry

In Dan Wang’s piece, How Technology Grows, he argues for the importance of process knowledge over using the semiconductor industry as an example:

Process knowledge is represented by an experienced workforce. I’ve been studying the semiconductor industry, and that has helped to clarify my thoughts on technological innovation more broadly. It’s easy to identify all three forms of technology in the production of semiconductors: tools, instructions, and process knowledge. The three firms most responsible for executing Moore’s Law — TSMC, Intel, and Samsung — make use of each. All three companies invest north of $10 billion a year to push forward that technological frontier.

The tools and IP held by these firms are easy to observe. I think that the process knowledge they possess is even more important. The process knowledge can also be referred to as technical and industrial expertise; in the case of semiconductors, that includes knowledge of how to store wafers, how to enter a clean room, how much electric current should be used at different stages of the fab process, and countless other things. This kind of knowledge is won by experience. Anyone with detailed instructions but no experience actually fabricating chips is likely to make a mess.

I believe that technology ultimately progresses because of people and the deepening of the process knowledge they possess. I view the creation of new tools and IP as certifications that we’ve accumulated process knowledge. Instead of seeing tools and IP as the ultimate ends of technological progress, I’d like to view them as milestones in the training of better scientists, engineers, and technicians.

The accumulated process knowledge plus capital allows the semiconductor companies to continue to produce ever-more sophisticated chips. The doubling of transistor density every 24 months wouldn’t be possible if these firms didn’t already possess deep pools of process knowledge. It’s not just about the tools, which any sufficiently-capitalized firm can buy; or the blueprints, which are hard to follow without experience of what went into codifying them. The US has many decades of experience in designing and fabricating semiconductors, and it has developed the talent ecosystem that succeeds in pushing Moore’s Law forward. This cluster of talent allows the US to maintain its lead on a critically-important technology.

On a related note, process knowledge is why you’d want to start a software technology startup in the Bay Area. Many engineers in the Bay Area have worked at successful unicorn, decacorn, or hectocorn companies. Their experience starting or scaling these companies are invaluable if they decide to join your fledgling startup. While Bay Area tech workers are notorious for job hopping from company to the next, process knowledge flows freely and this is beneficial to any startup ecosystem.

October 6, 2021

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