California Has Microelectronics DREAMS

| March 14, 2024

USC is tapped to lead the Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub of Southern California.

California DREAMS Director and USC ISI Associate Director Steve Crago addresses the crowd at the Inaugural Site Visit.

California DREAMS Director and USC ISI Associate Director Steve Crago addresses the crowd at the Inaugural Site Visit. (Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman)

A Los Angeles surgeon maneuvers a scalpel ever so carefully, ready to make a vital incision on a patient in desperate need of urgent care — but the operating table is empty.

In fact, these lifesaving measures are taking place halfway across the country — or even the world — as the surgeon watches a video screen and directs robotic arms that mimic their every move with precision. There is no room for error.

“Things have to happen right away,” explained USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI) Associate Director Steve Crago. “You can’t see something happen on a screen and then there’s even half a second of difference between those parallel movements — you’re in surgery.”

There can be no lag, or latency from this technology, one that could change the world. The path to reach this theoretical scenario is in strengthening 5G and then future 6G wireless technology, and the microchips and microdevices that make those leaps possible.

To catalyze the necessary environment to reach such lofty goals, the United States Department of Defense (DoD), through the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, awarded generational investment across the country, including an initial $27 million to ISI, a unit of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, to lead California DREAMS (Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub) on Sept. 29, 2023. Crago has been tapped to be its director.

“The idea of this hub is to put funding in place so that the university people working in the lab and the industry people that have the fabrication facility for production are working closely together, right at the beginning,” he said. “So, when the technology breakthrough makes it past the lab, it’s already been experimented with in a way that was rigorous and harmonious with the fabrication facility, which can then pick that up and run with it. The particular part of these technologies that we are working on is the analog front end. You have sensors that are analog, where data comes in from the real world. And then that can be digitally computed. We are focused on wireless transceivers and arrays, imagers, materials, and processors.”

Advancing the state of the art in microelectronics

DREAMS is one of eight regional hubs across the country in the Microelectronics Commons network. Its 16 founding partners will focus on furthering the future of microelectronics development in the U.S. for the new frontiers of 6G and beyond, and the workforce development required to achieve those goals.

“We are delighted that USC will lead a powerful team of universities and industry to advance the state of the art in microelectronics,” USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos said. “This vital hub will synchronize and further empower the academic prowess of the participating academic and industrial partners. It will also help nurture a vibrant new environment for microelectronics in Southern California with far-reaching benefits nationwide.”

The DREAMS partner institutions within higher education ​are Caltech; Morgan State University in Baltimore; North Carolina A&T State University; University of California, Irvine; UCLA; University of California, Riverside; University of California, San Diego; and University of California, Santa Barbara. Among the many companies involved are The Boeing Co., HRL Laboratories, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, PDF Solutions, Raytheon/RTX and Teledyne Scientific Co.

Addressing a national need

“It’s an opportunity for Southern California to anchor and address a national need. And it’s an opportunity for USC to be in a leadership role. There are a number of individuals who have been working on these technologies for many years who can now step forward and offer their solutions to the nation,” said Andrea Belz, Viterbi Vice Dean of Transformative Initiatives and DREAMS director of translational strategy. “Its mission is to transform research into impact. And that’s what it will do.”

Even before the DoD awarding, Crago and his peers at ISI and across Southern California universities, along with those industry titans, had begun to meet with any eye toward  building something big and collaborative. They were ready to pounce when the time and investment from the federal government came.

Why ISI? There is the towering legacy of MOSIS (Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service), which is a microchip brokerage service ISI has run for over 40 years. MOSIS provides the ability for individuals with limited access to rare and expensive equipment to carry forward their prototyping efforts. DREAMS will be the home to MOSIS 2.0. Where the original catered to silicon digital chips, the new MOSIS will leverage DREAMS partnerships with DoD-ready fabrication facilities to produce compound semiconductors, which are necessary for the new frontiers of 6G and beyond.

“We are trying to compete in a world of international competitors, and we want to have the ability to take great ideas and form them into commercial- and defense-relevant microelectronics,” MOSIS 2.0 Director Mike Haney said. “Our goal is to take these partners all across Southern California and make this a single functioning team.”

Thinking about how to build

At its core, DREAMS will bring together academia and the industry that mass produces its breakthroughs, all while meeting government benchmarks for success. Previously, such synergy between these entities was rare. It was not uncommon to see a student or faculty researcher work very diligently on a revolutionary project, only to find out it was not viable as a commercially mass-produced product. The idea was dead in the water, all because the sides didn’t have a conversation ahead of time.

“We want to take the best ideas that have impact, with the DoD or commercial world, and enable them to be accelerated through the prototyping step. If you don’t do it right it can take years,” Haney said. The connections made from DREAMS can speed up an idea that typically would take a year and see it bear fruit in weeks. “We want students to have a design-to manufacturing-mindset as early as possible. There are examples of really clever, cool ideas built in universities that could never be built in production. We want to enable a culture that thinks about how to build — before we put it forward.”

Making hardware cool again

The other major focus of DREAMS is who will help build this future. The semiconductor industry anticipates 115,000 new jobs by 2030, but roughly 67,000 of those are at risk of going unfilled, said Belz, who is spearheading DREAMS’ workforce development plans.

“As a nation we have allowed our internal skill sets around hardware development to decay. We have outsourced it,” she added. “What we plan to do is to have a philosophy that addresses every different educational stage with solutions that are specific to each. It’s a full spectrum approach to making sure that we have the capabilities in one year, five years and 10 years that we need.”

Those stages include K-12, continuing education for high school graduates and college students in all stages (bachelors/masters/doctorates). In particular, Belz said that the universities can be a tool to train technicians. Hub partners possess nanofabs where people can train in the cleanroom environments where chips are developed.

“We are really interested in potential employees who are good with their hands but maybe would not like to set foot in a classroom,” she said. “That’s a community, as a university, we are not as used to serving. And yet, the entire national infrastructure requires us to figure this out.”

Making microdevices and hardware cool again — in a world where computer software is king and young students can develop their own apps in days — is of paramount importance moving forward, Crago noted, and will help shift brain power in its direction.

The possibilities are there, they just need to be demonstrated. The microchips, antennas and sensors DREAMS will help revolutionize are meant to show up everywhere: in your car, on the side mirror that alerts you when someone is passing by your blind spot; in your laptop charger, giving you a full battery 30 minutes faster than before; and in an armored tank or comms satellite, protecting it from electronic jamming interference from a foreign adversary. And, of course, it will be there in the future, when your phone, in the upper right-hand corner, transitions from reading 5G to 6G.

ISI will be at the forefront of that.

“This is a key win for USC,” ISI Executive Director Craig Knoblock said. “It again demonstrates the university’s long-held status as an innovator in research and education, as well as its ability to collaborate with other institutions and private industry.”

Published on March 14th, 2024

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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