© Fraunhofer IIS/Katharina Knaut
Vertrauenswürdige Elektronik und Datensicherheit sind die Basis für alle digitalen, vernetzten Systeme

»The only way to meet the expectations placed on modern microelectronics is through networking and cooperation«

The innovative potential of microelectronics is a driver for numerous industries. The Research Fab Microelectronics Germany (FMD) was created in 2017 to strengthen the position of Europe’s semiconductor and electronics industry on the global playing field. We spoke to the chair of the FMD and spokesman of the Fraunhofer Group for Microelectronics, Professor Albert Heuberger, about the FMD’s accomplishments so far and the expectations associated with modern microelectronics.

© Fraunhofer IIS/Karoline Glasow
Prof. Albert Heuberger, Executive Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen.

Professor Heuberger, the process of setting up the FMD is largely complete. What has been achieved, and what’s next? 

We have managed to complete the considerable investments in infrastructure in the member institutes, with the exception of a few delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic . We are now in the process of implementing and establishing the Research Fab Microelectronics model. A first step has been taken with the reorganization of the administrative office. Already, the FMD is regarded as a paradigm for the deployment of diverse expertise from different institutions united by a common strategy, offering complementary products and services to industry.

Furthermore, we must continue to systematically combine and strategically develop the expertise of our member institutes to maintain the technological sovereignty and the appeal of Germany and Europe for top-level research. It is important that we purposefully work together on key future issues to be more agile than our competitors in the USA and Asia.

 

© Fraunhofer IIS/Bianca Möller
Project SEMULIN: Development of a natural human-machine interface with smart sensor interpretation and data fusion for automated driving. Legal, ethical as well as social aspects are included in the development.

Many sectors are facing seismic changes as a result of digitalization. What challenges will the field of microelectronics have to overcome? 

Artificial intelligence (AI), Industry 4.0, driverless cars – all of these digital developments require new methods, processes, and business models for the transmission, storage, and processing of large amounts of data. Existing computer technology can barely keep up with evolving demands in terms of energy consumption, data processing, and transfer speeds. As we become more dependent on digital networks and data, our security needs to become more sophisticated, too. A particularly crucial aspect in this regard is technological sovereignty, i.e., self-determination and control over systems and data in Germany and Europe. Until now, the market power of primarily US-based IT corporations such as Microsoft and Google has led to virtually unavoidable dependencies. The same is true for chip manufacturing, which is primarily based in Asia. 

Reliable electronics and data security are the heart of all digital networked systems – especially the Internet of Things, but also in AI. Particularly in fields involving the processing of personal or security-critical data, such as medical technology, driverless cars or critical infrastructure, it is vital for owners to have full control over their ICT systems and for users to receive information about the characteristics of the systems they are using. And this concerns the entire data flow – from the end customer to the actual hardware processing the data. 

 

© Fraunhofer IIS/Katharina Knaut
Trustworthy electronics and data security are the basis for all digital, networked systems.

Can you give us any examples of how the FMD helps industry in this regard? 

We design comprehensive, innovative electronic systems for new research fields requiring this kind of wide-ranging expertise. I would like to name three examples.

In the TRAICT (Trusted Resource Aware ICT) project, eight FMD institutes collaborate with ten other Fraunhofer institutes to create the necessary framework conditions for reliable and data protection compliant information and communication technology that can be used in a self-determined and secure manner. The key issue here is how to validate and safeguard the reliability of critical electronic components and systems in globally interconnected supply and value chains.

Nowadays, many of the critical components in digital technologies are manufactured outside of Europe, and in many parts of the digital supply chain suppliers in other countries hold quasi-monopolies. The result is a high level of dependency that could become detrimental to Germany. We have initiated a project devoted to a platform for reliable electronics, the goal of which is to examine the entire value chain and devise coherent concepts. In all, 13 partners are involved in the project: 12 Fraunhofer and Leibniz institutes belonging to the FMD, and edacentrum GmbH. They will develop and apply appropriate standards, norms, and processes based on a national and European chip security architecture. 

Despite intensive efforts to design increasingly energy-efficient electronic components, primarily with the aim of increasing mobility supported by electronic devices, overall energy consumption by information and communication technology has continued to rise. This problem is exacerbated by recent developments in the field of self-learning systems and their expected propagation into all areas of life and work. The upshot is that large data centers will no longer be solely responsible for the bulk of energy consumption, as increasingly prevalent IoT devices and systems account for an increasing share. More and more of the energy consumed will be due to the massive increase in data transmission. To address these challenges, the FMD is planning a competence center for resource-efficient information and communication technology, or »Green ICT«.

 

© Fraunhofer IIS
An example of an energy-saving, adaptive system of the future: the »smart screw connection« from Fraunhofer IIS. It records and transmits sensor data in an self-powered manner made possible by energy harvesting.

We’re curious: You have been chair of the FMD and spokesman of the Group for Microelectronics for more than a year. What has changed from your perspective?   

The past year has been filled with difficult challenges for all of us. The frequency of online meetings and the lack of personal contact with FMD colleagues has significantly affected my own working practices and culture. I am thankful that technology enables us to keep on working and stay in touch.

My role as spokesman involves some interesting duties, for instance in the executive board of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft or in European bodies. It is motivating that the importance of microelectronics for future issues like quantum technology or technological sovereignty is being acknowledged, and that I can personally play a part in shaping the changes underway in Germany’s research community.

Besides that, where would you like to make a particular difference in your capacity as spokesman of the Group for Microelectronics? 

My duties as spokesman include organizing the collaboration among the microelectronics institutes, building on my collaboration with my deputy Christoph Kutter, the Board of Directors, and our colleagues at the Leibniz Institutes. I am especially keen to promote even greater collaboration and promote strategic initiatives with the restructured administrative office of the FMD and the Group. 

I would also like to further enhance the status of microelectronics in industry and politics. As we all know, microelectronics is an interdisciplinary technology with implications for all sectors. Accordingly, we need to cultivate awareness of the importance of technological sovereignty and the opportunities presented by advances in microelectronics with regard to the emergence of new industries such as quantum computing. To achieve this, we need to present a united front by further intensifying collaboration between the various Fraunhofer Institutes.

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