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Domestic Electronic Sovereignty and the Future
March 24, 2023 by Philip P. Thurman | News
Instability resulting from numerous recent events such as the COVID pandemic supply chain disruption, invasion of Ukraine, and domestic inflation, have generated an anxiety of uncertainty for the future across many industries. No one disputes the interconnectedness of the global economy.
But, past or current arrangements do not discount the need for technological preservation safeguards. It is in the world’s best interests to ensure Western Civilization continuity. Any forward thinking, value preservation company has an established, well-developed Disaster Response and Business Continuity Plan.
How about our domestic electronics manufacturing industry? What is our collective strategy of preservation and business stability over the next five decades and beyond? Electronics industry progress and advancements from the previous fifty years provide potential glimpses for the next half century. Yet unidentified revolutions will have profound impacts on our economic security, national defense, and fundamental American existentialism. The following identifiable trends shape our collective path:
1. Environmental Impact Decrease
A collective consciousness has developed among most modernized countries to improve living standards through technology value enhancement yet minimize potential destruction upon the environment. Every sensible individual on this planet wants the cleanest possible air, water, and land not only for our own current well-being but also for the many generations ahead. While domestically striving towards the best of intentions, practical reality demonstrates that various geopolitical models render an uneven playing field.
Multiple developed country approaches range from robust to no more than veneers of responsible control over electronic waste, mineral sourcing ethics, electronics performance reliability at both the component and assembly level, and different degreed perceptions to what level human activity influences our climate.
Still, these contrasting fundamentals do not necessarily mean abandoning the pursuit of continuous improvement. The potential danger exists where focus develops so tunneled that our peripheral vision becomes blinded to technical sovereignty sacrifice and we abandon those principles enabling our actual achievements. As the most advanced industrial nation in the history of the world, the United States is expected to set the standard for this precarious balance.
However, we cannot allow such strict hindrances endangering our ability to maintain our standard of living where sustainable technologies have not yet caught up to reality. Does this sound like an existential threat?
2. Power Concentration
Electrical power density has rapidly developed over the previous several decades. Progress has mainly been driven by advancements in the electronic vehicle (EV) market. Engineers have increased battery power density to total weight ratio at an astounding rate with primary focus on lithium-ion chemistry batteries. Many EVs have now reached near parity in performance, reliability, and pricing as traditional combustion engines. While lithium may not be considered a rare earth metal, the dangers posed to domestic sovereignty still exist in controlling the supply chain of specific necessary structural material. Only a single lithium mine exists in the United States – The Silver Peak Lithium Mine in Silver Peak, Nevada. According to Govind Bhutada (2022), “The U.S. share of lithium production is down from 37% in 1995 to 1% in 2021.” He adds “China is the third largest producer and controls 60% of global battery-grade lithium refining capacity.” (Mine Production of Lithium 1995-2021 chart).
The goal of a North American electronics manufacturing capable majority cannot and will not happen until a seamless supply chain of onshore raw materials are immediately available to address current and future demands. If the conversion from combustion power to EV shifts too quickly without a sufficient supporting infrastructure or material availability, does this sound like an existential threat?
3. Skilled Technical Labor Loss
Smaller, faster, cheaper. Moore’s Law is an observation “that the number of transistors on a microchip roughly doubles every two years, whereas its cost is halved over that same timeframe”. (Tardi, 2022). Many see this development reaching a conclusion with Moore himself stating in a 2005 interview “…the fact that materials are made of atoms is the fundamental limitation and it’s not that far away…We’re pushing up against some fairly fundamental limits so one of these days we’re going to have to stop making things smaller.”
Production capability to achieve these micron manufacturing levels are among the most specialized and complicated assemblies (including the capital equipment required for production). Electronics miniaturization is critical to domestic national defense. Both offensive and defensive systems at soldier and unit levels require high mobility, reliability, ease of application, and processing speed. The COVID pandemic may have affected almost every industry on a global scale but according to the US Chamber of Commerce, only half of the job openings in the American durable goods manufacturing market, including electronics manufacturing, are filled. This means that the specialized skills necessary to sustain and further develop these critical technologies have diminished (Ferguson, 2023). According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “The manufacturing industry [was] forced [with] a major setback after losing roughly 1.4 million jobs at the onset of the pandemic. Since then, the industry has struggled to hire entry level and skilled workers alike.” Does this sound like an existential threat?
4. Chip and Semiconductor Manufacturing
Last year, “The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022” was passed with the intention of directing $280 billion in spending over the next decade with $52.7 billion for semiconductor manufacturing, $200 billion for R&D and commercialization, and $24 billion in tax credits for chip production. (Badlam, et. al., 2022). The authors continue with “The United States makes 12 percent of the world’s semiconductors, compared to 37 percent in the 1990s, according to US government statistics.” While admirable to devote significant capital towards manufacturing, domestic production growth cannot occur without the necessary raw material supply chain flow to support the intended manufacturing increase. While silicon, germanium, gallium arsenide, and cobalt remain the most significant components for the manufacturing of integrated circuits, processors, and other semiconductors, rare earth metals such as Neodymium (used primarily for strong permanent magnets), Samarium (calcium chloride doping for optical lasers), Europium (making thin superconductor alloys), and Terbium (doping calcium fluoride, calcium tungstate, and strontium molybdate, all used in solid-state devices) all play critical roles in semiconductor production.
According to Statista, “Between 2018 and 2021, 74 percent of rare earth imports into the United States originated in China” (Garside, 2023). A weakness in any link breaks the entire chain. Like domestic lithium mining, only a single rare earth mining and processing facility operates in the United States – the Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave Desert. While this is primarily due to the only identified location where economically feasible, the feasibility scale should demand significant reconsideration with contingency relative to a prospective catastrophic disruption. Does this sound like an existential threat?
Whether you are a domestic electronic manufacturing service with three or three thousand employees, a comprehensive disaster recovery business continuity strategy for the entire electronics manufacturing industry is long overdue. The challenges and obstacles to overcome should provide mitigation strategies for any potential future hostage scenarios where the many may possibly come under control of the few.
This achievement can only occur through a partnership of government and private industry. Quality is not only providing our customers with what and more than they expect. But as equally important, customers’ defined time frame of required receipt. Trends must be anticipated, bold decisions must be made, and provisional strategies must be planned and tested or the potential catastrophic damage may be irreversible.
Badlam, J. et al. (2022). The CHIPS and Science Act: Here’s what’s in it. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-chips-and-science-act-heres-whats-in-it#/
Bhutada, G. (2022) “Visualizing 25 Years of Lithium Production, by Country”. Retrieved from https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-25-years-of-lithium-production-by-country/
Ferguson, S. (2023). Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries. Retrieved from https://www.uschamber.com/workforce/understanding-americas-labor-shortage-the-most-impacted-industries
Garside, M. (2023). U.S. rare earth imports by country of origin 2018-2021. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/279895/us-rare-earth-import-value/#:~:text=Between%202018%20and%202021%2C%2074,United%20States%20originated%20from%20China.
Tardi, C. (2022). What Is Moore’s Law and Is It Still True?
YouTube. “Moore’s Law 40th Anniversary with Gordon Moore,” Dec. 17, 2007. (Video). Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/m/mooreslaw.asp
Philip P. Thurman
Phil is currently the Quality Assurance Director for Quality Manufacturing Services, Inc. and has been a manufacturing quality assurance executive for 30 years with extensive experience in military power management systems, electronic manufacturing services, and quality systems applications. Receiving a BA in English from Stetson University and an MBA in Organizational Leadership from Norwich University, he is a published author and often consulted for electronic systems manufacturing development guidance. His extensive knowledge offers unique insights into industry trends, manufacturing advancements, and the continuing role of quality assurance evolution relative to technological progression.