Surprise native gives expertise on chip shortage

A professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, who graduated from Seymour High School in 1976, knows the semiconductor chip business better than most of us.

There has been a global shortage of the chips this past year, which has slowed down production of cars, computer parts, smartphones and other industries that utilize microelectronics.

“I’ve kind of made it a specialty to understand how semiconductors have evolved over the last 55 or so years,” Daniel Fleetwood said.

In understanding the global semiconductor shortage, he said one needs to understand how much semiconductors have changed over time.

The chips are used to conduct electricity in microelectronics, but as the name implies, their conductivity is that between a conductor, like metals, or an insulator, such as glass or ceramics.

Semiconductor makers over the years have prioritized making the chips smaller, faster and cheaper to manufacture.

Fleetwood, who grew up in the Surprise area but now lives in Brentwood, Tennessee, started studying semiconductors in the mid-1980s.

At that time, a microchip could store about 64,000 bits of information, he said. Today, they can contain nearly 24 billion bits.

“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to build these,” he said. “There are so many transistors on a chip, and you’ve not only got to build them successfully, but you’ve got to wire them all up to get unique signals to each of these and not only do that but do it fast enough that it works at a high speed.”

He said only five or six companies in the world can manufacture them “at the leading edge and at high volume,” and there is simply too much demand for the supply to meet.

“It’s classic market forces at play,” he said.

The automotive industry’s struggle with acquiring semiconductor chips has to do with high demands for specialty chips, high-reliability standards and low cost point.

To get past the shortage, Fleetwood said there are two options: A slowdown in the economy or ramping up production to meet the increase in demand.

He said creating a state-of-the-art semiconductor fabrication plant (also called a fab) costs between $8 billion and $18 billion.

When asked if he foresaw the global chip shortage happening, he said it was clear to him that capacity for the chips was being challenged.

To him, the tipping point was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Another similar event Fleetwood compared to the global semiconductor shortage was the Y2K scare when programmers were worried computer systems would fail past the year 1999 since they wouldn’t have the appropriate calendar data for the new millennium.

During that time, Fleetwood said everyone had to upgrade their computer systems at the same time to try to keep up with technological demands.

Similarly, during the global pandemic, a lot of the semiconductor chip demand has come from people resorting to working virtually in response to it.

He said an explosion in computing and data science has contributed to the shortage.

“Smartphones didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and they weren’t what they were now until about 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “The demand has exploded at the same time that it has become much more challenging to fabricate them.”

While the economy has been recovering well since the pandemic, he said there hasn’t been any kind of pause in the manufacturing of microelectronics or computer parts.

Fleetwood doesn’t see the shortage easing any time soon unless the economy tanks, which he says would be bad.

The reason for this is rapidly evolving technology, such as autonomous vehicles and smarter systems that require semiconductor chips.

He said people might see the semiconductor shortage as a software or systems issue, but people underestimate how much hardware and how many chips are required for today’s technology.

Fleetwood attended Cortland Elementary School and graduated as valedictorian from Seymour High School. He also pitched a perfect game while playing for the Owls baseball team.

He later earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. — all in physics — from Purdue University in 1980, 1981 and 1984, respectively.

Between 1984 and 1999, Fleetwood worked at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was promoted to Distinguished Member of Technical Staff (DMTS) in 1990. Sandia is a federally funded research and development center that works with other governments agencies, industries and academic institutions in the strategic areas of nuclear weapons, national security programs, energy and global security.

He has been a professor at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, for past 21 years. Besides electrical engineering, Fleetwood was named a professor of physics.

Fleetwood’s area of expertise is “radiation response and reliability of semiconductor devices in space and defense environments.” He is the author of approximately 600 publications on radiation effects in microelectronics, low frequency of noise and defects in microelectronic devices and materials.

He said he has taught seminars on Moore’s Law, the observation that transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years, and the microelectronics industry.