Bright minds wanted for chip design in Europe

March 27, 2024 | Ideas for promoting young talent from Harald Neubauer, Chip Design Center at Fraunhofer IIS

The predominant development and manufacturing of chips in Asia not only render Europe highly dependent on Asian production, potentially leading to delivery challenges. An issue of at least equal importance for Europe is the preservation of expertise and the education of the upcoming generation of chip designers. Harald Neubauer, an expert from the Chip Design Center at Fraunhofer IIS, possesses a deep understanding of these matters and potential strategies to address them. 

© Fraunhofer IIS / Karoline Glasow
»We have to get young people interested in microelectronics.«, says Harald Neubauer, Chip-Design-Center department at Fraunhofer IIS

“Developing chips calls for a lot of systems expertise – which is to say, knowledge about a component’s specifications and how it works,” Neubauer says. “If we contract this work out to Asia, there’s a big risk that this knowledge – and thus the core of German engineering expertise – will simply leave the country and go with it.” This unwanted transfer of know-how also hits Germany’s strong SME sector and leaves Europe lacking the expertise to create vital innovations in the sphere of energy-saving and eco-friendly electronics. Neubauer adds: “From electric vehicles to heat pumps, we’ll be using a lot more electrically powered devices in the future. Microchips have a major impact and can play an essential role in solutions to the problems confronting humanity. To this end, we need bright minds on the case in Europe.”

In search of German engineers

“This calls for an investment not just in machines but in brainpower,” Neubauer says, “but it’s precisely this brainpower that’s becoming scarce: not only are we seeing fewer and fewer young people decide to study electrical engineering, but the share of them studying microelectronics is also falling.” This difficult situation is further exacerbated by the demographic fact that many engineers currently working in the field are due to retire over the next decade.

There is a striking disparity between young people’s perception of electrical engineering and the reality. A survey conducted by the German Association for Electrical, Electronic and Information Technologies (VDE) supports this analysis: when schoolchildren doing advanced courses in math and physics were asked what they thought electrical engineers did, the answer they most commonly gave was: “They stand in front of a control cabinet and pull at wires,”reflecting the general sentiment. Consequently, very few of them wanted to study electrical engineering. “This is a gross misconception,” Neubauer says. “Electrical engineering is a highly attractive profession with plenty of scope for people to choose their own path. It features a host of creative processes and is one of the drivers of the energy transition.”

Moreover, Germany has not managed to attract enough female talent to this occupation – other countries have done much better in this regard. Sadly, the low take-up of electrical engineering among female students in Germany is outdone by the even more disappointing take-up of microelectronics.


Forging a new generation of designers: the Bavarian Chip Design Center

This is where the Bavarian Chip Design Center, an initiative by the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, Regional Development and Energy, comes in. Three Bavarian Fraunhofer Institutes are involved in the initiative, including Fraunhofer IIS. Having developed a range of concepts in a preliminary project, the next task for the Fraunhofer researchers is to sketch out the Bavarian Chip Design Center in practical terms. “Part of our goal is to strengthen the educational component. For example, we want to establish a series of courses with the aim of speeding up the process of preparing people to work in the field of microelectronics,” Neubauer explains. One pillar of this strategy will be to shorten training periods by means of certificate courses, special programs, and better supervision – cutting them down from the three to four years they usually take to just one or two years.

Another pillar concerns the future of microelectronics itself. Germany has a strong SME sector in general. But there is still room for improvement when it comes to exploiting microelectronics to create USPs. Reliability of supply chains is also an important consideration. Custom components are much less affected by supply shortages than standard products. When a shortage looms for a standard product, all businesses reliant on that product will scramble to stock up their warehouses. But since production was well balanced up to that point, only the volume of components actually needed was being manufactured. Increased demand due to panic buying makes the system collapse. It’s a different story with custom components: because they are produced only for a single company or a very small number of companies, the logistics chain is more stable. The Bavarian Chip Design Center will provide support here through access to manufacturing opportunities and in the supply chain.

“If we as a society want the energy transition to succeed, and if we want to become greener and use energy more efficiently,” Neubauer says, “then we have to get young people interested in microelectronics.”


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