The gas crisis forces us once again to look the facts in the face. We are all too dependent on countries outside of Europe for the essential processes that make society work. Europe is also striving to become more independent in chip manufacturing. The Dutch province of Twente intends to play a pioneering role in this area. The University of Twente, the Nanotechnology Research Institute MESA+ and dozens of companies in the region have come together in the ChipTech Twente cluster, which will see to the realization of this ambitious plan. “All the ingredients are available here in the region,” says Bram Nauta, professor of integrated circuit design at the University of Twente.
Without chips, the world will stop. We need it for cooling systems in stores, for traffic lights, for internet connectivity and even for our electric toothbrushes. Currently, Europe is heavily dependent on countries like Taiwan and Korea for its chip supply. But if it is up to the European Union alone, that will change in the near future. With the European Chips Act, Europe wants to strengthen its own position and double its chip production by 2030. So there is a lot of work to be done, especially in the Netherlands.
Chip design in Twente
The Twente region is aiming for a key position with its Chip Tech consortium. In recent years, the region has already proven that it has the right ingredients in-house to develop the chip systems of the future. There are now nine chip design firms in the region that design (parts of) chips for various global manufacturers. They design the very chips that are now so rare and thus hold an important position internationally. Without structural funding and without new talent, Europe will not be able to achieve its ambitions at a sufficient level. Additionally, there are companies like LioniX International and PhiX that have been recognized for their development of photonic chips. These have the ability to use lights instead of electrons to do their job. Companies focused on microfluidic chips, such as Micronit, Medspray and Uneedle, have also established themselves in the region. And within the University of Twente (UT) there is a burgeoning department dedicated to labs on a chip: small devices that integrate these different laboratory functionalities on a single chip.
In recent years, therefore, major developments have already taken place. But Chip Tech Twente’s aspirations go even further. Indeed, the future of chips lies in the integration of the various systems being developed in the region. “Take the MedTech industry, for example,” continues Nauta. “In this industry, many different systems all come together. What if you could integrate them? Then it might be possible to make toilet paper act as a disease detection system during a trip to the toilet. Such an intelligent integrated system does not yet exist. We could change that here in Twente.
Foundry for heterogeneous systems
Twente recognizes the urgency of system integration and will take the next step: setting up a pure play foundry, where companies can work together on heterogeneous applications. Companies and scientists will be able to work side by side on a small scale to manufacture prototypes and develop new concepts. Machinery will also be provided which can produce the whole system around it.
Nauta believes that the creation of such a foundry is a very good idea. Last June, together with Timo Meinders, Commercial Director of the MESA+ Institute, he presented MEP Bart Groothuis with the ambitious plan to promote Chip Tech in Twente. “Companies are working side by side on innovative end products that don’t even exist today. Take, for example, a vacuum cleaner with sensors that can “smell” dirt and therefore can more effectively do the job they were designed to do. Or take the airbag system I just mentioned. This type of foundry is the perfect place to bring these types of applications to life. But before such applications can be manufactured on a large scale, they must first be designed. That’s exactly what we do here in Twente. All we need to do is get companies to stick together and cooperate. The foundry will help with that.
More integrated systems
Over the years, several Twente chip design companies have already successfully brought a range of embedded applications to market. Axign, based in Enschede, has developed an amplifier with chips that improves the sound of wireless speakers. The amplifiers are used in the sound systems of the American manufacturer JBL, among other applications. QBayLogic is working with several leading companies and institutions, including Airbus and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), on a chip design (containing both analog and digital elements) for a laser solution as part of from Matou project (Terabit Optical Communication Adaptive Terminal). This project should enable high processing speed laser communication between ground stations and satellites. Ultimately, the Foundry’s goal is to further promote these kinds of apps in this way.
Unique boot climate
The fact that Twente has so much potential in the field of chip design is partly due to its unique start-up climate. Large companies such as ASML and Philips have established themselves in the Brainport region (Eindhoven’s innovation ecosystem) for decades. Twente lacks big tech giants. But that is precisely why there is room for small tech start-ups in the region. “Students graduating from Eindhoven University end up working for these tech giants. The incentive to start their own business is not as widespread there. In Twente, over the years, about nine companies spun off the faculty of the University of Twente have already established themselves in the field of chip design.Our students, who are in demand worldwide, in combination with these chip-related companies, also attract new companies.And so now , we have an ecosystem here with the potential to respond to the global stage.
In addition, grants from the Twente Growth Fund contribute to the region’s aspirations to become the place for the development, production and packaging of heterogeneous systems. Ivan Stojanovic is project manager integrated photonics and semicon in Ost NL. He is convinced that two grants in particular, namely those of PhotonDelta and NXTGEN HIGHTECH, play a decisive role. “Within these grants, it is possible that research funds will reach different heterogeneous systems that will be able to support unique application areas,” says Stojanovic.
Work within PhotonDelta examines the steps needed to take photonic chips to the next level and how to make them even more efficient to manufacture. “Think of it as the development of the photonic chip cookbook. We are working on it with actors from Twente, but also with others from Brabant, such as Smart Photonics. Photonic chips are expected to play an important role in heterogeneous systems, just like electronic chips. But that’s why we have to get them ready for the market and remove all bottlenecks. »
NXTGEN HIGHTECH is a broader program that explores how the Netherlands can maintain its strong technological position in areas such as biomedical technology, agribusiness and satellite laser communications. “In this program, we are developing the tools and equipment that will make all of this possible. It also involves manufacturing equipment that allows for heterogeneous integration, as well as preparing subsequent systems for future market demand. We are thinking, for example, of systems that will use MEMS sensors, photonic chips and sensors, but also electronic chips and sensors. We need to be able to put it all together and test it.
A matter of having the courage to do it
Like Nauta, Stojanovic is convinced that Twente, with all its know-how and expertise, will play a pioneering role in the field of heterogeneous system design. “Now it’s all about having the courage to do it. If we invest now, and soon, once we have a foundry here, we will be ready for all the developments that the future will bring. I think Twente can do it.
Over the next few months, ChipTech Twente will work on developing a roadmap. This is expected to be finalized in September.