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How Michigan could benefit from Washington’s $76B investment in microchips

A scientist at SK Siltron CSS holds a silicon carbide wafer produced at the company's facility in Auburn, near Bay City. The South Korean-owned company plans to expand its Michigan operations in nearby Monitor Township to increase production of these wafers, used in electric vehicles.The company received a $4.4 million tax incentive from the state for the expansion. (Courtesy photo)
  • The U.S. is about to approve billions in incentives to increase domestic semiconductor manufacturing
  • Michigan businesses anticipate they could see some of that investment, and job growth
  • Michigan is also focusing on supporting products that allow chips to function in cars, appliances, electronic devices

A rural stretch between Bay City and Midland offers a glimpse into what federal incentives to boost semiconductor chip manufacturing in the U.S. could mean to Michigan.

That is where SK Siltron CSS has made wafers — which eventually get sliced into microchips, the “brains” for electronics in vehicles, appliances, televisions and phones.

But as the U.S. confronted a chip shortage early in the pandemic — one that continues today, in turn prompting ongoing product shortages — the South Korean-owned company decided to increase capacity.

The company is more than doubling manufacturing by building a second, $300 million facility near its current one that, it said, should also at least double its 130 employees in the Great Lakes Bay region.

That kind of growth in a region’s existing semiconductor footprint will help give Michigan an edge as it seeks a piece of the $76 billion federal plan to expand semiconductor manufacturing and research in the U.S., said John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

The measure — which passed the House Thursday after earlier approval by the Senate — awaits President Joe Biden’s signature. The act offers incentives for more companies to establish operations in the U.S., as the nation seeks to diminish reliance on overseas chips and related products as it competes with China, Taiwan and South Korea. 

“The availability of funding and incentives, together with what we have here in the state of Michigan, could make us a very, very eligible target for investment,” Walsh said.

Michigan is among the top states in the nation for semiconductor manufacturing, with industry jobs growing 12 percent between 2015 and 2020. Chips are critical to the automotive industry, and also to the state’s medical device, agriculture and defense sectors.

The semiconductor incentive spending plan is part of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act that Biden said he intends to sign. He may be heading to Saginaw Tuesday for an event tied to the legislation, according to the Detroit News.

Final approval will be “game-changing,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement before the Congressional votes.

Funding “will make a real difference in people's lives if we get it done, and it's the kind of policy that can set us up for decades of economic prosperity." Whitmer said.

U.S. spending targeted to semiconductors will include:

  • $39 billion for an incentive program to build new semiconductor facilities, with $2 billion dedicated to making automotive-grade chips that also are used in medical devices;
  • $11 billion for programs aimed at research and development and workforce development;
  • $2 billion for chip development for the Department of Defense;
  • $24 billion to fund a 25-percent investment tax credit for semiconductor plants.

It is “exactly what we need to be doing to grow our economy right now,” Biden said in a statement after the House vote, which took place as data showed national business productivity declined for the second straight quarter.

About a dozen new large-scale chip-making plants — known in the industry as “fabs — could be built across the U.S. by 2025, with each costing at least $1 billion and requiring thousands of workers, Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation, a global nonprofit tech industry association based in California, told Bridge Michigan.

Increased chip production will prompt expansion of supporting industries that produce products that form the building blocks for chips or fill out the rest of the supply chain to let them become functional, said Todd Brassard, vice president and COO of Calumet Electronics Corporation, a circuit board maker in the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan is among several states with existing chip-related industry clusters, including places like California, Texas, Arizona, New York, Oregon and Ohio, which recently landed a $20 billion Intel chip plant just outside of Columbus.

Besides SK Siltron and Calumet Engineering, Michigan companies already operating in the sphere include Hemlock Semiconductor, a leading global maker of polysilicon based in Saginaw, and KLA Corp., which opened a second headquarters for its semiconductor support equipment manufacturing in Ann Arbor late last year.  

Brassard said that while the state plays an important role with the microelectronics going into electric vehicles, more opportunities exist.

“Michigan also has a tremendous opportunity to push much more deeply into aerospace, space, and defense (which are) all industries that require a highly advanced electronics manufacturing ecosystem focused around the latest semiconductor technologies,” he told Bridge.

State officials and business leaders say the CHIPS funding also should help stabilize Michigan's automotive industry.

A lack of available chips has curtailed production, in some cases prompting temporary layoffs and continual shifts to try to meet market demand. Over the past two years, the shortage of new vehicles has left dealer lots close to empty.

According to the state, idled plants impacted more than 575,000 auto-related American jobs as North American automakers cut production by 2.2 million vehicles due to the chip crisis.

“We’re constantly dealing with chip constraints every day,” Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford Motor Co.’s Americas & International Markets Group, said Thursday during an analyst call. 

Walsh, of the manufacturer’s group, said the Intel plant in Columbus also could benefit the state due to its proximity. 

“The fact that you’ve got that kind of an investment in our geographic and economic circle is going to be helpful to our industry,” he said. 

Yet, Brassard said, while he supports the CHIPS Act, the U.S. needs more than chips to effectively shift to less reliance on overseas manufacturing. He said he hopes the incentives will stretch to related industries.

“Some of the CHIPS Act (funding) needs to go into the ecosystem in which (chips) exist,” he said, likening the chip to a car’s engine instead of a complete automobile.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s semiconductor workforce ranks among the top 10  in the nation, said Liss of the SEMI Foundation, with job growth projected to grow by at least 11 percent in the next five years. 

But many more jobs aren’t being filled. The industry has an estimated 84,000 unfilled job openings across the U.S.

Michigan has contracted with the foundation to become the third state to develop a Semiconductor Apprenticeship Network Program, which will support the SEMI Foundation in addressing the workforce shortage. The plan should be finalized by next spring, Liss said. 

Bay County already is working with business leaders and local educators, including Saginaw Valley State University, to train workers for the high-tech manufacturing work at SK Siltron, said Jim Reaume, economic development manager for Bay Future Inc., a business growth organization.

As opportunities grow, so will the need for training, he said. So far, he said, only Purdue University in Indiana is offering a full semiconductor degree curriculum.

“We expect that to expand as the need expands,” Reaume said, “especially with this legislation shining more light on this” industry. 

As Michigan business leaders await Biden’s approval of the chip funding, many say the state has been attracting more interest from companies seeking to increase green energy jobs. 

“It helps to pitch to other companies when you have such an innovative and certainly topical industry come into your backyard,” Reaume said. Time will tell what that will help us land in the future.”

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