Defence Ministry Invites Industry To Make 5 Lakh Microchips In India

by Anand Parthasarathy - Sep 11, 2022 08:11 PM +05:30 IST
Defence Ministry Invites Industry To Make 5 Lakh Microchips In IndiaDefence Minister Rajnath Singh (Pic Via Twitter)
Snapshot
  • The IT Ministry has floated on behalf of Defence, a Request for Proposal from industry, to design, develop and package 2 Systems-on-a-Chip, totalling 5 lakh pieces.

    Chips must be based on Open Source, with intellectual property held in India.

    To speed up the process, the government is offering 20 per cent advance of deployment-linked incentives

In an initiative of far-reaching consequences, India’s Defence Ministry has put its money where its mouth is: it has translated buzzwords like 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' into practical action by volunteering to helm the production of 5 lakh semiconductor chips divided across two designs, provided they are based on an indigenous design and Indian Intellectual Property (IP).

It has committed to consume 10 percent of the microchips so produced –that is 50,000 units—in a military role, leaving the makers to sell the rest in the civilian market.

This demonstrates a shrewd realisation that a military market alone can never enthuse the industry and the higher performance criteria ( and consequent making cost) demanded by armed forces applications – what are called MILSTD or military standard – need to be offset by larger civilian consumer and enterprise markets.

In a Sunday afternoon posting on his Facebook Page, Defence Secretary Dr Ajay Kumar has shared a link to the Ministry of Electronics and IT site which carries a copy of the September 7 Tender Document.

Writes Dr Kumar: “A great initiative towards Cyber Secure India!! Development of Indian microprocessor based chips would be a historic development in the history of cyber security of Digital India. No more fear of embedded backdoors or malware vulnerabilities in chips which we use for our equipment.”

He adds: “…Once developed India could be a source of secure chips in the global electronics supply chain. Therefore, this small step is expected to open many new doors in the future.”

Make-in-India mantra

The 105-page Request for Proposal emphasises the central mantra that has motivated the government:

"The core of the SoCs is to be based on processors designed and owned by Indian entities, designed based on ‘Open Source’ ISA. In addition to design, development and packaging in India, the major design IPs i.e Processor, Secure Boot and Security IPs of such processors are to be owned by Indian entities.”

SoC stands for System-on-a-Chip ( SoC), jargon for a single slab of silicon or some other semiconductor material that integrates all components of a computer or other specialist electronic system.

The insistence on Open Source will make it easy for a wider community of developers to build newer applications exploiting the basic chip once it is available.

The tender effectively rules out global chip makers submitting their own proprietary commercial products. The Ministry’s insistence that the “processors must be “designed and owned by Indian entities” is the biggest vote of confidence till date in the inherent capability of Indian engineers to deliver indigenous intellectual property to meet the stringent environmental and performance requirements of the military.

Typically Military Standard devices must meet severe shock and vibration standards and function in all environments from desert to icy heights. At the minimum in India, this covers a temperature range of minus 40 degrees Celsius to plus 55 degrees Celsius.

The statement of intent also reveals tacit acceptance that at present India does not have indigenous fabs or semiconductor fabrication facilities where chips to the currently achievable standards of density can be manufactured.

Hence it insists on “design, development and packaging in India” but does not include manufacture. This opens the possibility that the winning applicants would be free – at least to start with – to use a silicon foundry outside India, but then package the final products in India.

This also neatly dovetails with the way the indigenous semiconductor manufacture roadmap is being laid out: even new aspirants like Tata Electronics are said to be scouting for partners to set up packaging units of microchips first, before entering the foundry business.

Defence uses Chandigarh chip plant

Hitherto, the armed forces have been using inhouse labs within the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( DRDO) based in Hyderabad and Bengaluru to design its strategic semiconductor device requirements and has been using the Semi Conductor Laboratory ( SCL) in Chandigarh under the Department of Space as a manufacturing base.

However, SCL is not equipped to manufacture to current commercial standards that are in the 5-7 nanometer range. ( one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter).

However there are many applications that do not require this level of component density – and for starters there are already two academic agencies in India who have already created a wholly Indian microchip:

Made-in-India microprocessors today

Two  made-in-India chips: Moushik the latest in the  Shakti  family from IIT Madras(left)  and Ajit from IIT Bombay
Two made-in-India chips: Moushik the latest in the Shakti family from IIT Madras(left) and Ajit from IIT Bombay

A team at IIT Madras led by Prof V Kamakoti, has developed a microprocessor – ‘Shakti’– claimed to be India’s first RISC ( or Reduced Instruction Set) processor, tailored for low power applications like mobile phones.

It is being manufactured at SCL Chandigarh, using the 180 nanometer fabrication technology. The Shakti family has grown to three chips, the latest being ‘Moushik’, released in October 2020.

Another microprocessor designed, developed and manufactured in India ( at SCL) is AJIT, helmed at IIT Bombay by a 9-person team headed by Prof. Madhav Desai.

Sample quantities were again manufactured at SCL, Chandigarh. Both projects were supported by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity), but have not reached commercial scale.

That may all change now: If Shakti or Ajit can be used to create what the new tender called BSC-1 and BSC-2 ( for Bharat Secure Chip) and meet their application requirements, this will provide a big head start for any one hoping to qualify for the opportunity offered by the Defence Ministry.

Monetary support

In another pragmatic step, the government has offered to provide some monetary Deployment Linked Incentives (DLI) and has even offered to provide 20 per cent of this in advance.

The tender says it expects the first chip to be ready in three-and-a-half years and the second in four years. A subsequent tender would address the making of two more advanced Systems on a Chip.

It remains to see what level of interest the Defence Challenge will evoke. But it can be fairly said, the government has in this instance, translated words into action – and challenged the electronics industry to respond.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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