PCBs critical to strong US electronics ecosystem

Radford University assistant professor of management, Zachary A Collier, PhD

Radford University assistant professor of management, Zachary A Collier PhD, underlines the importance of investing in a trusted and secure PCB supply chain

Artificial intelligence (AI) is being adopted incredibly quickly and is forecasted to contribute over $15 trillion to the world economy by 2030. Companies are competing for dominance, but competition isn’t only between companies. On the international stage, nations including the US and China are strategically vying for technological leadership in AI, making the technology itself—and the supply chains supporting it—imperative for economic and national security.

Enabling AI applications are powerful and specialized chips known as graphics processing units (GPUs) which carry out the large- scale computations necessary for AI. These GPUs are in short supply and companies like Microsoft have warned certain services may experience disruptions if they cannot acquire enough chips.

GPUs alone cannot run a complex AI program. A GPU needs a printed circuit board (PCB) so it can receive power and communicate with other components. The problem is the US no longer produces much of the global PCB share. According tothe Printed Circuit Board Association of America, the US fell from producing around 26 per cent of the world’s PCBs in 2000 to only about four per cent today. Meanwhile, China’s share has skyrocketed from around eight to 54 per cent in the same time period.

Dependence on foreign PCB suppliers leaves the US supply chain vulnerable. With China controlling such a large share of the PCB market, one troubling scenario is that the supply to the US could be cut off completely, with dire implications across the entire economy—energy, healthcare, finance and other critical infrastructure sectors. Other concerns include covert insertion of malicious components onto the PCB, altering the impacted system’s performance and compromising its security. An example of this was reported in 2018 when a tiny chip was secretly installed onto circuit boards, providing for unauthorized access to the networks that included the altered systems.

Responding to the strategic importance of semiconductors, over a year ago President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law, providing $52 billion in incentives for semiconductor manufacturing, R&D and workforce development. Since then, multiple companies have announced their intention to build or expand new facilities, totaling over $210 billion in private investment and potentially creating over 44,000 new jobs.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced called the Protecting Circuit Boards and Substrates Act of 2023, which mirrors many of the provisions found in the CHIPS Act. It includes $3 billion in incentives for construction of PCB factories, R&D and workforce development initiatives and proposes a 25 per cent tax credit for those who purchase American made PCBs.

While the ultimate fate of the proposed legislation is unknown, it is clear that a trusted, secure electronics supply chain should consider the entire end-to-end flow, including PCBs. A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. While substantial progress is being made to strengthen the nation’s electronics supply chain, demand for AI and other digitally enabled services will continue to increase. To meet this growing demand, more work must be done to ensure we develop a stable, trustworthy supply of components to enable the products we use today and that will power the technologies of tomorrow.