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Semiconductors are in short supply. 3 experts weigh in on what to do about it

June 28, 2021, 7:45 PM UTC

Semiconductors power almost any smart device you own. They’re small, complex, and powerful pieces of hardware that are integral to the operation of everyday products like cars and computers. And right now, they’re in short supply.

As podcast guest Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle, puts it, “what the steam engine was to the 19th century, the semiconductor has been to the 20th and 21st. It’s powered the digital revolution.”

O’Mara joins Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe, the hosts of Fortune Brainstorm, to discuss the history of semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S., how it’s since moved offshore, and why the government should invest not only in domestic plants and manufacturing, but also in people and ideas to support innovation and the broader growth of the American tech sector.

Also on the show, Lev-Ram talks to Ondrej Burkacky, who studies the global semiconductor industry as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. Burkacky explains why big tech companies can’t just start manufacturing semiconductors domestically to account for the shortage. He also describes the challenges that come along with trying to accurately forecast semiconductor demand, especially during a pandemic.

O’Keefe later interviews Tyson Tuttle, CEO of Silicon Labs, a global semiconductor company based in Austin, Texas. Tuttle says he believes that the demand for semiconductors will continue to increase, referencing American-based companies such as Tesla, Apple, and Amazon, all of which are now designing their own chips. 

Whether it’s “autonomous driving, in the case of Tesla, or higher-speed data centers that are going into some of the large companies,” Tuttle says, such cutting-edge technology has prompted U.S.-based companies to expand over the last five years. Tuttle says he remains optimistic about the United States’s position as a leader in the industry.

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