A focus on existing infrastructure will pay dividends

David Clark

David Clark is Chief Technology Officer at Clas-SiC Wafer Fab Ltd, a new 150mm semiconductor wafer fab, built in Lochgelly in Scotland. This is dedicated to the manufacture of silicon carbide power products such as SiC diodes and metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs).


  • The strategy is focussed on these skills and technologies where the UK has existing strengths
  • Used wisely, the investment outlined in the strategy could make a significant difference to the sector
  • A number of funding streams already exist
  • Support for existing infrastructure offers reduced risk in expanding the sector
  • Funds for scale-up are difficult to access.

Clas-SiC Wafer Fab is an open, pure-play foundry that fabricates silicon carbide semiconductor devices. It carries out fast prototyping to aid the acceleration of R&D in areas such as net zero and the More Than Moore revolution. It has been very successful, seeing 500% revenue growth over the past year and doubling the number of customer accounts. We now have full 24/7 working with a consequent increase in headcount. The company is located in what used to be a coal mining area. In fabricating silicon carbide, we are still processing the carbon and silicon that used to be dug out of the ground in Lochgelly: so we have come full circle in a sense.

Media reaction to the launch of the National Semiconductor Strategy has not been very positive, concluding that £1 billion is not enough. Compared to the cost of a full TSMC-style wafer fab of £18 billion, it does not seem much. However, the Government strategy is concerned to “boost the UK’s strengths and skills in design, R&D and compound semiconductors”, not create TSMC wafer fabs here. Used wisely, the investment can make a significant difference. Compound semiconductor fabs, for example, do not need leading edge capability. Indeed, at Clas-SiC, we use technology developed several years ago, which is leading edge for silicon carbide, but not nearly as expensive as some other technologies.

So we believe that wisely-targeted investment using existing infrastructure would be a prudent move. We believe that will build on the strengths of existing UK wafer fabs, quite a number of whom are poised to contribute to implementation of the strategy. It is important that any new infrastructure does not compete with these existing operations. Also, support for existing infrastructure could safeguard and potentially create jobs.

This type of investment could also allow businesses to hit the ground running. Drawing on the experience of Clas-SiC, it took five years from startup to get a MOSFET field-effect transistor product approved and start production. All the time, there were customers waiting to make use of the facility. So, by building on existing infrastructure, companies can get a good start on their own programmes.

This approach also reduces risk. Things will go wrong, especially with constructing a new facility. We and other fabs have already navigated that level of risk. Clas-SiC started in 2017, we have spent £50 million and are now self-sufficient with proven technology. We have a healthy and growing customer base with demand for more.

Scaling up

The biggest challenge now is actually expanding and we need to find further funding. A small part of that £1 billion would help us to scale up as part of the Open Access infrastructure. Clas-SiC is not unique in this, it applies to many other semiconductor fabs and other sectors.

The funding climate in the UK at present is somewhat weighted against technology investments: funds are often more easily available in other international markets. So, wisely-targeted Government investment in existing semiconductor infrastructure will be most welcome and the £1 billion will go much further here than the initial press might have us believe.

The scale-up chasm remains a challenge. Government aspirations for the semiconductor industry are laudable and have brought us a good way. There are several existing R&D schemes managed by EPSRC, UKRI’s Driving the Electric Revolution (DER) programme and the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), as well as other mid-Technology Readiness Level (TRL) programmes applicable to semiconductors. These are good schemes, taking projects through to initial production. But the UK seems to have a challenge in how to turn all that great science and technology into sustainable manufacturing jobs, ones which remain in the UK because too many of them end up going offshore. That needs to be tackled.

The Government is due to announce plans in the autumn that will include support for investment in the UK semiconductor manufacturing and for scale-up. We welcome that. However, there is a lack of clarity on how to enable scale-up. At the moment the road ahead seems a bit foggy and it is not actually quite clear how it all fits together and makes a difference.

It has, though, been good to see this initial £1 billion investment and the launch of the National Semiconductor Strategy. If it is implemented well, it could produce a win-win solution for industry and the Government. The existing R&D schemes work well but now we need to focus on how to resolve the problems beyond that initial stage, i.e. scale up. We will await with interest the next Government statement on this in the autumn.