Space: A Final Frontier for Semiconductor Manufacturing?

Trends and opportunities for semiconductor materials, quantum structures and nanodevices, metallization, dielectrics, chips platforms and their packaging were the central theme of the world's first roadmapping workshop for semiconductors held in July.

Trends and opportunities for semiconductor materials, quantum structures and nanodevices, metallization, dielectrics, chips platforms and their packaging, and related applications with tech, socio, political and economic drivers were the central theme of the world’s first roadmapping workshop for semiconductors held in July at the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue University.

The workshop, attended by more than 30 corporate, government and academic leader partners, was sponsored, in part, by a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Department of Commerce and the eXcellence in Manufacturing and Operations (XMO) initiative at Purdue. It attracted senior federal leaders from NASA, the Department of Defense and the NIST Department of Commerce.

“Today space commerce and security, along with exploration, are getting seamlessly interconnected to Earth physically, digitally and sustainably,” said Ajay Malshe, the general chair of the workshop and R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Malshe is also co-chair of XMO.

The special topical roadmap workshop was part of a national effort organized by co-investigators on a grant funded by NIST. In addition to Purdue, they include NASA, the University of Alabama and the University of New Hampshire. Brad Kinsey, the associate dean for research in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of New Hampshire, is a professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator on the grant.

Mike Molnar, director of the NIST Office of Advanced Manufacturing and the interagency Manufacturing USA program, said technology roadmap workshops are invaluable for establishing consortia and for new industry-led innovation institutes. Molnar said the overarching goal is to “establish a robust and resilient domestic space manufacturing commercial ecosystem.”

Steve Shade, Ball Brothers Director of Advanced Manufacturing Initiatives at Purdue and resident expert on the roadmapping process, co-chaired the workshop. He said that in addition to representatives from government agencies, more than two dozen companies working in advanced manufacturing, space and semiconductors were in attendance together with leading researchers from world-class universities.

“Technologies that support dynamic space operations provide capabilities with on-orbit servicing and extended lifespan,” said Nick Kamin, technical director of science, technology and research directorate for the U.S. Space Force. “Servicing, refueling, and assembly are essential as we envision an interplanetary supply chain.”

John Vickers, the principal technologist in the area of advanced materials and manufacturing at NASA, said: “Semiconductor technology and innovation are crucial for our nation’s future. NASA is interested to use its position as a global leader for in-space manufacturing to contribute to the advanced technologies and our next-generation workforce that are essential to support these national efforts.”

The workshop participants looked at the three dimensions of a roadmap:

  • The top layer: trends and drivers with external forces influencing commerce
  • The middle layer: commercial products, processes, and services
  • The bottom layer: technologies and capabilities needed

The attendees were asked to offer insights on trends and drivers. The nearly 200 Post-it Notes were grouped by topics, such as lack of federal dollars for working in space, lack of existing standards and geo-political challenges, followed by a vote on prioritizing which were most important. The process was repeated for each layer with a final vote that will lead to topical workshops examining those in more detail.

“There are so many companies wanting to work in this manufacturing area, but it’s critical to know how to get there by creating an agnostic platform that isn’t tied to any specific system or environment and holds universal value by connecting various systems,” said Robbie Hampton, director of Payload Operations at the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory in Houston.

Hampton leads a team of highly experienced project managers responsible for the planning and execution of research and development payloads utilizing the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. He sees the importance of programs like Purdue’s in workforce development for the next industrial revolution coming in commercializing space.

Rose Hernandez, science program director for in-space production applications at the ISS, stressed the need for creating superior, functional materials that can be tested and produced in space while developing the workforce needed as we move into the Orbital Age. She is responsible for championing R&D programs to develop and manage the ISS as a laboratory and a testbed for a diverse research portfolio that includes technology development as well as applied science for the manufacture of products in space to benefit life on Earth.

In a dialogue at the workshop, Kevin Engelbert, NASA SBIR/STTR contracting officer representative, said NASA is investing in semiconductor manufacturing in microgravity “because the space environment offers the opportunity to develop next-generation materials of great importance to national security.” 

Curtis Hill, a subject matter expert and senior materials engineer at NASA ESSCA, emphasized that “unlike Earth conditions, microgravity with an ample supply of sun energy can provide unique opportunities to imagine manufacturing new semiconductors from chips for applications to benefit Earth and space.”

More strategic workshops will be conducted across the country in the coming year seeking insights from industry, government and academic experience to develop a robust roadmap. The dates for the workshops, which can be great learning opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and instrumental volunteers, will be announced at a later date.

Attendees of the in-space advanced manufacturing of semiconductors workshop, held in July at Purdue University.