February 27, 2024

India must seize the opportunity in Critical Technologies Development

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India must indigenize production and development of high end technologies, and create  facilitating policies to ensure the success of ‘Make in India’, ‘Assemble in India’, and ‘Service in India’ campaigns.

Keywords: Self-Sufficiency | Material Technology | Indigenous capability | Semiconductors | Technology Transfer | Research and Development | Technological Sovereignty | Tech Policies

It is no secret that notwithstanding major spending on technological advancements, which may exceed 50 billion USD, mainland China is still far from catching up with the US-Taiwan duo. For instance, marginal technological complexity in further increasing the density of transistors on a semiconductor chip while migrating from 7-nanometer resolution to 5-nanometer resolution still eludes the grasp of China. In this regard, the other big three – Japan, South Korea and the United States of America are far ahead quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

Semiconductors are a subset of a larger sector of science & technology collectively referred to as material science & technology. Inorganic semiconductors (especially Silicon) are the harbingers of future dominance in the field and often Silicon Fab is considered to be a panacea. If Fab is like masonry, and cement and brick material are research and production, then the scaffolding, cranes and lifters, are still confined to a few manufacturers in the US and Europe. Taiwan and South Korea have large Fabs. Yet, they are no match for the US and a few EU member-nations (mainly Germany, and to a lesser extent France). India, when it comes to semiconductors, is still focused on Fabs. Yet they alone will not provide technological autonomy.

Why India isn’t a key player in this field?

Without an adequate publicly funded R&D infrastructure, even outstanding scientists can not accelerate the progress of material science & technology. Russia and the United States have been at the forefront here. Taiwan and South Korea are the production workshops but their own R&D is still limited. China is catching up.

India has tried to attract the development of the semiconductor & material science industry by offering various incentives to foreign manufacturers but has lagged behind so far. 

Without an adequate publicly funded R&D infrastructure, even outstanding scientists can not accelerate the progress of material science & technology.

There is no doubt that the material science industry requires state support but nowhere has it grown only with Government subsidies. As it is a high-risk low reward activity, the viability gap requires public funding which is a necessary but insufficient condition.

The Indian public sector effort is hampered in a very techno-commercially dynamic area constantly in a state of evolution. The Government should consider allowing the public sector management, like the private sector, to have a stake in the profits of the company as an incentive. Just this single policy decision will make the prospective ventures more efficient, and attract the best talent. The earnings of the Government through taxes and dividends would only go up. It is high time visionaries are brought together and a sensible mechanism is created to manufacture semiconductors and spur other material technologies to take off in India. How otherwise will we produce titanium alloys to build tanks, or fighter aircraft without knowing how to manufacture composite bodies, manufacture plane and helicopter engines or 50 year old basalt fibre material for composite vehicles and special fire-resistant textiles?

When COVID came knocking it became apparent that there were no facilities to manufacture high-tech textiles. However steps have been taken in this regard and India is now the second largest PPE kit maker in the world

We must acquire the capability to make silicon or space grade gallium arsenide solar cells, build  advanced heat pipes and produce Bismuth telluride Peltier elements used in car refrigerators and critical for the next generation of electronic cooling. Think of meta-materials, diamond, advanced polymers, memory materials, smart materials, nano-materials and other advanced technologies, which will transform life and the planet in the next decade. So far India does not have a Fab to manufacture red laser pointers. (They are Gallium Arsenide lasers – a material for which Zhores Alferov, my mentor got a Nobel Prize in the year 2000 as a recognition of his discoveries in the sixties).Every LED light in India is made from Gallium Nitride light-emitting diodes, yet chips are not manufactured in India, nor are LCD (Liquid Crystal Displays) for  phones or Televisions, or lithium-ion polymer batteries. We have not indigenized 30-40-year-old technologies like Mercury Cadmium Telluride detectors, critical for every long-range rocket or missile; neither are we making photo-detectors for night vision goggles.

When COVID came knocking it became apparent that there were no facilities to manufacture high-tech textiles. However steps have been taken in this regard and India is now the second largest PPE kit maker in the world.

Rule of AI systems is coming

The world is moving toward inanimate technocracy – a society in which dispassionate AI systems will rule. Technological Companies may take over many functions of governance. They are already overturning the millenary old system in which the currency is controlled by the sovereign, by issuing Bitcoins and other cyber and crypto-currencies. Traffic systems are already unmanned and penalizing the slightest deviation from laid norms. The armed forces too will inanimate, progressively. In the world to come, there will be technological sovereigns and technology vassals and the degree of sovereignty will depend not so much on the direction or status of technological progress, but on its pace.

I created the country’s first Gallium Nitride Fab in Gandhinagar, Gujarat making a major investment, after I returned to India a few years ago. The material GaN Fab (Gallium Nitride is the second most important semiconductor preceded only by silicon) is strategically and commercially critical for India. We created it as a vertically integrated Fab. However, we were not supported by banks or other financial institutions with working capital. 

India must jump on board the moving train of cutting edge high tech as a nation if it wishes to achieve scientific and industrial sovereignty.

Knowing that defence establishments are importing Gallium Nitride devices and depend on US suppliers for critical equipment like high power devices, radiofrequency devices needed for radars, synthetic aperture radars, radiation-resistant ICs etc. we approached DRDO and are working with them since April 2019 (http://www.dnsl.in). Government has identified this technological sector as the area of the highest priority for national development after energy production and distribution. Adaptability and speed are of the essence in this race.

India must jump on board the moving train of cutting edge high tech as a nation if it wishes to achieve scientific and industrial sovereignty.

The Way Out

• There is no need for Americans, Japanese, Koreans or Taiwanese to come and build plants in this industry because labour is not a cost component of any consequence in Automated Semiconductor Manufacturing. Instead, India should be attracting talent globally, as we do not have enough domestic resources in material science.

• The US’ willingness to transfer technology to East Asia rested on the assumption that Orientals were not inventive enough to surpass them. China proved them wrong. The US understands it created its own Nemesis and will not repeat the mistake with India. 

• Global Expression of Interest (EoI) to establish Fabs in India is a sound call but if a producer thinks strategically, why should he help his customer to become his competitor, as long as such customer has no capability to be a competitor on its own? The attitude would be very different if the customer were to wean other clients away to his small exclusive shop, while still buying in bulk from the original supplier. In that case, it is hard to stop selling to him in bulk because he is a source of growing revenue, even if it is clear that he is a future competitor.  The right strategy would be to invest in that client and partner with him to share in future profits.

• A Silicon Fab is not viable if not executed at scale. So we should first start a State-of-the-Art small plant, which will not be economically profitable, but the costs will be affordable, and the Government should absorb the losses with subsidies. Once established in this market, a global scale Fab can be built. In a few years India will be a force to reckon within the sector.

The Crux of The Matter

1. India has to develop the semiconductor base in both Silicon & Compound Semiconductors by recruiting experts and procuring small technology components from abroad. There is no reason for a foreign Company to build and operate a Fab in India when it is much cheaper to expand existing facilities in other countries which are often under-utilized.

2.  India needs to develop a precision engineering and speciality chemical industrial capability; otherwise, there will be problems at the next stage because we might be sanctioned and prevented from purchasing sensitive capital equipment that enables State-of-the-Art technology development.

It is a hard way, but all other attempts have yielded no result in the last quarter-century.

7 comments

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  • Electronic goods become basic need now for everyone may not be the case 15years ago. How long we keep this sector away and buy everything from outside?

  • I am not a tech expert. I am a journalist and a student of humanities. So I cannot give expert opinion on the subject. But many points in the article sound very important and deserve the attention of the powers that be.
    Unfortunately, unlike China we Indians do not have long term vision. Think of Deng’s plan in 1979 to turn china into an industrial and economic behemoth in three decades. And it has achieved that. In contrast, India’s five-year planning (rightly disbanded now) was nothing but an expression of a band-aide syndrome.
    Barring Tata and a few exceptional individuals Mr. Deepak Loomba, industrial houses in India have been kind of dealers in second hand goods. Of course, Narendra Modi is trying to transform everything. But he has no magic wand. Unless people like Mr. Loomba come out, ” more things will change , more will be the same.” (Pace George Orwell.)

    • Well said Dinesh.
      As a journalist, highlight the true status and then opportunities in changing status quo.

  • I agree with every bit of your view point here. Successive indignant and machiavellian governments were out of time to develop technical forbearance in electronics.

Deepak Loomba

Deepak Loomba is Chairman of De Core Nanosemiconductors Limited, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. He owns the only Private Company in the history of independent India, and the only one in entire South Asia which established a compound semiconductor plant with a material growth facility.

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