The Semiconductor Industry Association Emphasizes the Importance of the Industry Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak
With reports suggesting that COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the semiconductor market, the Semiconductor Industry Association has stepped in to remind the world of just how important the industry is both generally and during this outbreak, and to ensure the continuity of its operations.
Having just recovered from the impact of Huawei’s entry onto the U.S. Entity List, the semiconductor industry is now facing a new threat—the COVID-19 “coronavirus” pandemic.
In March, the IDC published a market perspective on its view the impact that the COVID-19 virus will have on the semiconductor market. The report, which provides four scenarios based on the potential length and extent of the crisis, describes how in the worst-case scenario, a contraction of over 12 percent could be seen. In contrast, the best-case scenario would be a rapid recovery and growth figure of 6 percent.
Although this research carries a lot of merit, we must acknowledge that it is still too soon to accurately predict and chart what may or may not happen. More importantly, this research is based on the assumption that semiconductor companies remain operational despite the global closure of businesses, orders to self-isolate, and other unprecedented restrictions on daily life—this must happen.
The Industry is Essential, Warns the SIA
The semiconductor industry forms a vital part of the global economy. Worth an estimated US$463.5 billion in 2016 and forecast to increase to US$831.5 billion by 2024, any major disruption to the industry or the pausing of operations in the face of COVID-19 could be catastrophic for not just the economy but critical infrastructure and national security, too.
The SIA's Defence
In a short white paper released last week (March 25), the Semiconductor Industry Authority (SIA) has stepped in to defend the position that the industry should be allowed to remain operational, giving governments around the world one clear message—that the operations of domestic semiconductor companies and their suppliers should continue as normal, supported where necessary, by defining the semiconductor industry and its supply chain as “essential infrastructure”.
“Semiconductors are a key enabling technology of electronic products critical to virtually all sectors of the U.S. economy, including healthcare and medical devices, telecommunications, energy, finance, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing,” wrote John Neuffer, President & CEO of the SIA, in a letter to President Trump on March 19.
He went on to add “The ability of the semiconductor industry across the supply chain in the U.S. to maintain operations in semiconductor research, design, and manufacturing is needed to support these vital parts of our economy and our critical infrastructure, both now and in a future economic recovery."
What Makes the Industry and its Workers ‘Essential’?
In the battle against COVID-19, semiconductor manufacturers are playing a vital role in supporting parts of the global economy and critical infrastructure found in key industries and areas such as national security, healthcare, and logistics.
Combatting a Pandemic with Technology
Semiconductors are also at the heart of many technological breakthroughs and COVID-busting designs that are being used to combat this devastating global pandemic, such as robotics that are being used for screening, fever-finding smart helmets for health and temperature monitoring, 3D-printed ventilator valves, and even COVID-19 screening booths. If the semiconductor industry was to have its operations restricted, many of these and the hundreds of other innovations currently taking place in the fight against COVID-19 would stop dead in their tracks, putting the lives of thousands at risk.
They also underpin the IT systems that are currently enabling much of the global workforce to stay at home and work remotely, thereby slowing down the spread of the virus and helping to flatten the curve. This, as many will be acutely aware by this stage, lets hospitals and healthcare systems—which are also heavily reliant on semiconductor technology—run below capacity and provide critical care to those who need it the most.
Semiconductor material stored in a plastic box taken out to be showcased.
How Semiconductor Firms are Adapting
Its importance aside, there is still an obvious risk of transmission when the industry remains operational and engineers and other industry employees continue to work from their regular facilities.
However, semiconductor industry cleanroom operations naturally minimize this risk due to the general cleanroom environment and the relatively high levels of automation on the production line.
Cleanrooms, which can span thousands of square meters and are a boon to social distancing, are specially constructed facilities where contaminants, including airborne particles, are eliminated through filtration systems and tight climate control that regulates airflow, pressure, temperature, and humidity. Workers in these environments enter them through airlocks and wear full protective gear, including face masks, coveralls, and gloves.
Taking Extra Health Measures for Industry Workers
As highlighted in the SIA’s whitepaper, the industry is willing to go further than this to ensure worker health and safety. These steps include stricter controls on the movement of employees between facilities, a reduction in on-site workforce, quarantines for employees who have traveled abroad recently or display cold/flu symptoms, social distancing, and regular sanitation and disinfection practices.
Meanwhile, Neuffer says that the SIA “[looks] forward to continuing to work with government leaders to defeat COVID-19 and to ensure the semiconductor industry remains a valuable contributor in ensuring continuity of critical infrastructure and operations during this global health crisis.”