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Prototyping facility will give students, startups access to semiconductor space

July 27, 2023

$270M Materials-to-Fab Center to be built at ASU's MacroTechnology Works in Tempe

The new cutting-edge prototyping facility announced recently by Arizona State University and Applied Materials Inc. will not only speed the time it takes for lab innovations to become real-life solutions, it also will allow ASU’s students to get the hands-on experience they need to become part of the new microelectronics workforce.

The $270 million Materials-to-Fab Center, aided by the Arizona Commerce Authority, will bring Applied Materials’ semiconductor-manufacturing equipment to the university’s MacroTechnology Works building at ASU Research Park.

Preparing students for the technology jobs of the future is critical – and a major goal of the New Economy Initiative, according to Sally Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise.

“When you sit with industry leaders and say, ‘What is keeping you up at night?’ they say, ‘people’ — the number of people and the diversity and inclusion of people,” she said.

“They see ASU at the forefront of providing an excellent workforce.”

Another important aspect of the new facility is finding a way to speed the time from lab innovation to prototype to commercial production.

“Things are slow. We do something at the university and it might take awhile to get into production,” Morton said.

“We need to speed up. The industry is moving so quickly and we have to get these ideas more quickly into production.”

That time lag is referred to as the "Valley of Death.”

“I think of this center as a physical space, intellectual space, educational space — all of those things working as a bridge across that Valley of Death,” she said.

“And it’s a bridge that students can walk on and faculty can walk on and industry can walk on together — that’s what makes it so important.”

Video courtesy Applied Materials

Kyle Squires, vice provost of engineering, computing and technology at ASU, said that Applied Materials’ equipment is world class.

“The university was very strategic about ensuring that our ASU faculty and students, properly trained, can have access, and that’s a major advantage. They’re going to do better research and be skilled users,” he said.

And that access will have ripple effects in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said Squires, who also is dean of the Fulton Schools.

“It creates capability, and that draws faculty to come here and motivates faculty who are already here to direct research that utilizes those tools,” he said.

“That, in turn, increases our reputation and our ability to recruit students and it starts to create a more robust pipeline of going from ideas in the lab to making prototypes and training students, and that’s a very unique ecosystem,” he said.

And ASU’s partners will benefit too.

“This is a resource for the entire state,” Morton said.

“Startups don’t have the money to buy this equipment. If they have an idea for a semiconductor wafer and want to produce it, they will now have that access.”

Morton said the machines or tools in the Materials-to-Fab Center test different materials and etchings on silicon wafers, a key component of electronic applications.

“One interesting thing to me is that the facility will be open 24/7,” she said.

“These are expensive machines and they want them running all the time. That doesn’t mean we’ll be taking students at 3 a.m., but we’ll be staffing the MacroTechnology Works to keep it open 'round the clock.”

The new project is an expansion of an existing partnership between ASU and Applied Materials.

“They’ve worked with ASU and have been impressed with our innovation and our commitment to inclusion,” Morton said.

“We’re a tested partner with them. This is an enhancement of that partnership. It’s been earned.”

Top photo of ASU's MacroTechnology Works facility by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Workshop brings academic, industry partners together to collaborate on CHIPS Act projects

July 27, 2023

ASU's SWAP Hub aims to position Southwest as a semiconductor epicenter

In the global race to lead on microchip manufacturing, research and development, Arizona State University — in anticipation of opportunities that will come from its CHIPS and Science Act proposals and partnerships — is already beginning to plan, collaborate and produce. 

Last week, the university held a workshop with more than 30 partners from academia, industry, national laboratories and nonprofits to discuss four quick-turn projects that will showcase the team’s readiness for national defense programs funded by the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act.

ASU has been preparing for years for the influx of work necessary to boost national security technology. In February, ASU submitted a proposal for a strategic public-private partnership on cutting-edge research and development to speed the transformation of ideas generated in the lab into practical solutions.

That collaborative effort, known as the Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub, or the SWAP Hub, is led by ASU and has more than 60 leading corporate, startup, academic and national lab partners from the semiconductor and defense sectors in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and beyond.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

The SWAP Hub was proposed for consideration as part of the Microelectronics Commons, a $1.63 billion Department of Defense program funded by the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act.

Sally Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, told partners assembled at the workshop that the Department of Defense is now evaluating the hub proposals and is expected to announce the funding awards before the end of federal fiscal year at the end of September.

“But we have not waited idly for their response. Just the opposite,” she told the workshop participants.

“The Southwest is already one of the nation’s key centers for microelectronics activity. It’s home to some of the leading semiconductor producers and suppliers, major defense contractors, world-class universities and research institutes, and a vibrant startup community,” she said.

RELATED: Prototyping facility will give students, startups access to semiconductor space

Zachary Holman, associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at ASU, told the SWAP Hub collaborators that ASU is funding four seed projects at $50,000 each, with the expectation that partners on the projects will match that funding.

“We want to get projects going within the SWAP Hub even before the government decides whether the SWAP Hub should exist,” said Holman, who also is director of faculty entrepreneurship within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“We would like teams comprising folks in this room, and folks not in this room, to have already been working together for months to have initial results that can parlay into much larger projects.”

ASU is accepting proposals with an Aug. 11 deadline for the projects, which will be six months in duration and will provide proof-of-concept that the SWAP Hub is ready to move quickly on much larger-scale work.

The projects will fall within three specific areas: 5G/6G technology; artificial intelligence hardware; or “commercial leap-ahead technology,” which includes new materials and other technologies that can quickly move the U.S. military beyond traditional weapon platforms like tanks, helicopters and gunships.

Each team that proposes a project must have at least one ASU principal investigator and at least one SWAP Hub member. Each project must show how it can be scaled up.

There are two main goals of the hub program, according to Kevin McGinnis, managing director of strategic technology initiatives at ASU: improve the “lab-to-fab” pathway – the ability to take an idea in the lab and transition it to a usable outcome — and develop a prepared workforce.

“We have the opportunity with this team to move ideas through university labs and startup companies and, with the help of our defense partners, place them onto defense platforms,” he said.

“We want to take ideas that happen here in the Southwest from a prototype stage all the way through to commercial fabrication and ideally onto a national defense platform that has high impact.”

The SWAP Hub also will provide access to cutting-edge technology to students, even undergraduates.

“We hear about workforce development needs every day,” McGinnis said.

“It seems that especially in the Department of Defense, where there are special requirements related to U.S. citizenship, that their pool of qualified workers is small and diminishing, so we need to offer a number of pathways to move people into the DoD microelectronics ecosystem, whether that’s at a national lab, a defense contractor, or the DoD itself.”

Several ASU students are part of a pilot internship program at Sandia National Laboratories, according to Ken Dean, senior manager of Advanced Semiconductor Technologies at Sandia.

As a Department of Energy National Laboratory, Sandia performs fundamental research and basic science, and develops national security technology for the U.S. This includes operating a production-rigor semiconductor fabrication facility.  

“Students can work with our semiconductor equipment and get exposure to both research topics and high-rigor production processes,” Dean told the gathering on Friday.

"The benefit to having interns here is we can start security clearances for them while they’re in the intern program, thereby creating a national security workforce that is ready to go.” 

Top photo: Rafi Islam, CEO and CTO of Cactus Materials Inc. in Tempe networks with others at the Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub Workshop on July 21 at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center. The objective of the daylong conference was to prepare ASU and its partners to rapidly develop projects related to the DoD Microelectronics Commons for execution under the SWAP Hub, in cooperation with other regional hubs. ASU also announced an offer of four $50,000 grants in seed funding to kick-start SWAP Hub-related projects. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News