The gas crisis once again puts us face to face with the facts. We are too dependent on countries outside Europe for essential processes that keep society going. When it comes to chip production, Europe is also striving to become more independent. Twente wants to play a pioneering role in this. The University of Twente, the Institute for Nanotechnology Research MESA + and dozens of companies in the region have joined forces in the ChipTech Twente cluster, which will ensure that the ambitious plan is realized. “All the ingredients are present here in the region,” says Bram Nauta, Professor of Integrated Circuit Design at the University of Twente.
Without chips, the world stands still. We need them for refrigeration systems in stores, for traffic lights, for the internet connection and even for our electric toothbrush. Europe is currently heavily dependent on countries like Taiwan and Korea for its chip supply, but if it is up to the EU, this will change in the short term. With the European Chips Act, Europe wants to strengthen Europe’s position and double chip production by 2030. So there is work to be done, also in the Netherlands.
Chip design in Twente
The Twente region aims to occupy a key position with the Chip Tech consortium. In recent years, the region has proven that it already has the ingredients to develop the chip systems of the future. There are now nine chip design companies in the region that design (parts of) chips for various globally operating manufacturers. They design the chips that are now so in short supply and they occupy an important international position. Without structural money and without new talent, Europe will not be able to sufficiently realize its ambitions. In addition, there are companies like LioniX International and PhiX that are known for their development of photonic chips that can perform their functions with light instead of electrons. Companies focusing 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 growing department around laboratories-on-a-chip: small devices that integrate the various laboratory functions on a single chip.
There has therefore already been a significant development in recent years. But the ambitions for Chip Tech Twente go further. Because the future of chips lies in the integration of the various systems developed in the region. “Take the MedTech industry, for example,” Nauta explains. “Many different systems are gathered in this sector. What if you can integrate it? Then it might just be possible to use toilet paper as a detection system for diseases during a toilet visit. Such a smart integrated system does not yet exist. We could change that here in Twente. ”
Foundry for heterogeneous systems
Twente recognizes the urgency of integrating systems and will take the next step: setting up one pure toy foundry, where companies can work together on heterogeneous applications. Companies and researchers can make prototypes and work on new designs side by side on a small scale. There will also be machines available that can produce the entire system around it.
Realizing such a foundry is a really good idea, says Nauta. In June, together with Timo Meinders, Business Director of the MESA + Institute, he presented the ambition plan for MEP Bart Groothuis to strengthen Chip Tech in Twente. “Companies work side by side with innovative end products that do not even exist today. Think of a vacuum cleaner with sensors that can ‘smell’ stains and therefore make what it is made of more efficient. Or take the airbag system I just mentioned. Such a foundry is the ideal place to bring such applications to life. But before such applications are produced on a large scale, they must first be designed. That is exactly what we are good at here in Twente. We just need to see that we get the noses of companies in the same direction and that they start working together. The foundry will help with that. ”
More integrated systems
Over the years, various chip design companies in Twente have already been successful in marketing various integrated applications. Enschede Axign developed an amplifier with chips that enhances the sound of wireless speakers. The amplifiers are used, among other things, in the American producer JBL’s sound systems. QBayLogic is working with leading companies and institutions, including Airbus and TNO, on a chip design (containing both analog and digital elements) for a laser solution within the TOmCAT (Terabit Optical Communication Adaptive Terminal) project. This project aims to enable high-throughput laser communication between earth stations and satellites. Ultimately, the goal of the foundry is to stimulate even more such uses.
Unique starting climate
That Twente has so much potential in chip design is partly due to the unique start-up climate. In the Brainport region, Eindhoven’s innovation ecosystem, large companies such as ASML and Philips have settled for decades. Twente lacks big tech giants. But it makes room for the smaller tech start-ups in the region. “Students graduating from the University of Eindhoven end up with these technology giants. There is less incentive to start your own business. Over the years, about nine companies with a focus on chip design have established themselves in Twente, which originates from the department at the University. of Twente. Our students, who are sought after all over the world, in combination with these chip-related companies, in turn also attract new business. And now we have an ecosystem here with the potential to serve the world stage. “
Growth fund allocations in Twente also contribute to the region’s ambition to become the best place for the development, production and packaging of heterogeneous systems. Ivan Stojanovic is project manager integrated photonics and semicon at Oost NL. He is convinced that two awards in particular, namely those from PhotonDelta and from NXTGEN HIGHTECH, play a major role. “Within these grants, there is room for research funding to reach different heterogeneous systems that will be able to serve unique uses,” explains Stojanovic.
Within PhotonDelta, we look at what steps are needed to lift photonic chips to a higher level, and how production can be made even more efficient. Think of it as developing the photonic chip cookbook. We work with parties from Twente, but also with parties from Brabant, such as Smart Photonics. Photonic chips will play an important role in heterogeneous systems, just like electronic chips. we make it ready for the market and remove all bottlenecks. “
NXTGEN HIGHTECH is a broader program that examines how the Netherlands can maintain its strong technological position in areas such as biomedical technology, agrifood and laser satellite communications. “In this program, we develop tools and equipment that make this possible. This also includes the manufacture of equipment that enables heterogeneous integration and prepares the resulting systems for future market demand. Think of systems that will use MEMS sensors, photonic chips and sensors, but also electronic chips and sensors. We must all be able to collect and test them. ”
question of daring
Like Nauta, Stojanovic is also convinced that Twente, with all its knowledge and expertise, will play a pioneering role in heterogeneous system design. “Now it’s primarily about daring. If we invest now and there is a foundry here soon, we are ready for the development that awaits us in the future. I think Twente can do it. ”
In the coming months, ChipTech Twente will work on preparing a roadmap. It is expected to be completed in September.