The photomasks like those that were shown to the president at Planar are an essential element of all integrated circuits. They are everywhere: in smartphones, tablets, TV sets; we can no longer imagine our lives without them. The entire digital world revolves around these tiny chips. Creating a photomask is not an easy thing, the process needs the highest accuracy. Planar is the CIS only producer of this kind of equipment. The products of the holding company are highly valued in Russia, China, Taiwan, the USA, and South Korea. In fact, there are few companies in the world that can do such things. Yet, this unique company might have not come to be in Belarus. In a new episode of BelTA's YouTube project “After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions” we will explain why the president did not agree to sell microelectronics companies back in the day, how this science-intensive industry is doing now, and what the nightmare of the USSR minister Vladislav Kolesnikov had to do with it.
The rise of Belarus' microelectronics industry
What is microelectronics? Not every adult will answer this question, as this industry is very complex. It supplies vital component parts to a broad range of industries, from the automotive industry to rocket production. The history of Belarusian microelectronics began back in the Soviet period. In 1962 the Precision Electronic Engineering Design Bureau was established in Minsk. In 1971 it became the head enterprise of the Planar research and production association. It also included such large machine factories as Ellar in Riga, Evistor in Vitebsk, Eton in Novolukoml and others. That was why Planar was called the heart of microelectronics in the Soviet Union. The company developed optical mechanical, control measuring and assembly equipment for chip production. It shipped its products to the entire USSR.
At a meeting to discuss development prospects of the country's microelectronics industry that took place at the Minsk-based Planar holding company this year, the head of state shared an interesting story. The famous native of Belarus, Nobel Prize laureate Zhores Alferov once recalled his conversation with the USSR Minister of Electronics Industry Vladislav Kolesnikov that took place in the 1980s. The latter said: “I have waken up today in cold sweat, I had a nightmare that Planar ceased to exist, and there is no electronics industry in the USSR without this company.”
“That says it all. It was really the heart of the entire electronics industry. The key competencies in this industry were accumulated at the company. It was an absolute truth. When this breakthrough industry was at its nascent stage, only America, the Soviet Union and Japan had sufficient intellectual and financial resources to keep it on its feet. Back then we also had related enterprises, in particular in Russia and the Baltic states, but its brain and its heart were in Belarus,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko's efforts to retain Belarus' microelectronics industry after the collapse of the USSR
This legacy of the global scale has been preserved. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Planar had to work under its own steam and address all its problems on its own. There was no longer a state plan and guaranteed sales. The company was restructured. It started to promote its products in Russia and faraway countries, in particular, China. By the way, more than 300 pieces of equipment were delivered to China in the 1990s. This way the company managed to retain all its competencies. Planar's next landmark transformation took place in 2014. By decision of the president, a research and production holding company was established. It also included Electronmash Plant and OptoElectronic Systems.
"“Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, microelectronics products made in Belarus were on a par with products of the world's industry leaders in terms of functionality and reliability. Even today, Belarus maintains its leading position in a number of high-tech niches. However, we are seriously lagging behind in a number of others. This is a fact. Our enterprises and developers offer comprehensive high-tech solutions in space optics, radiography, nondestructive control, and Earth's atmosphere sensing, just to name a few,” the president said reviewing the state and prospects of the domestic microelectronics industry.
In order to coordinate the work of scientists and industrial enterprises, an innovative industry cluster “Microelectronics, Optoelectronics and Microwave Electronics” was set up in 2017. It included Planar, Integral and the Minsk Research Institute of Radiomaterials.
Applications and sales markets for Integral's products
Integral specializes in chips that cannot be made without Planar's photomasks. Integral's product portfolio includes semiconductor devices, liquid crystal indicators and modules, electronic products. All this is widely used in almost all sectors of the domestic economy: computer technology, control systems, computer science, aerospace and nuclear industry.
Integral's core business is production of electronic components, said Aleksandr Dudkin, First Deputy Director General for Marketing and Sales - Director of the Marketing Center of Integral. “They are used in various applications, from household appliances to spacecraft and satellites. Integral has developed two business plans to scale up production. The first plan provides for ramping up the output of special and dual-use products. The second one envisages production upgrade that seeks to make products of 250nm and below,” Aleksandr Dudkin said.
Five years ago the average export of Integral did not exceed $70 million. The figure doubled last year. The main partner is Russia. Now the company is working hard to reduce the dependence of the Union State on imported electronics.
According to Aleksandr Dudkin, Integral products are sold in 14 countries. "The main sales market is the Russian Federation, it accounts for about 78% of the company's export. The rest goes to far-arc countries, mostly China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Singapore. An import substitution program was signed with the Russian Federation, and a roadmap was agreed upon. More than 80 types of military and civilian products will be manufactured under this program in the coming years,” Aleksandr Dudkin said.
Why Lukashenko prioritizes domestic microelectronics production
Not many post-Soviet states managed to preserve their industrial heritage.
Let us take, for instance, Latvia and its famous industrial and technical association Alfa. It was this enterprise that once achieved great success in developing and producing semiconductor integrated circuits. They were the pride of all-Union microelectronic industry. In the 1990s, however, the enterprise was privatized and its priceless production machines were sold for a song.
"I remember very well how they were pushing me to sell, to shut down these enterprises. They said they would buy, import everything from the West. Thank God, no matter how difficult it was, the country retained Planar, Integral, BelOMO, Horizont, and the Vitebsk-based Monolith. Most importantly, we preserved the research infrastructure of this science-intensive industry. 30 years have passed. What do we see? In the struggle for the re-division of the world, technology plays a decisive role. The one who possesses it will not only survive, but will call the shots in the future. The so-called civilized, democratic Western world will not hesitate for a second to use technology as a leverage, to impose sanctions, to try to bring unwelcome states that compete with them to their knees,” the Belarusian president emphasized the importance of preserving the country's industrial sector at the government meeting held this year to discuss microelectronics development prospects.
What Belarusian universities train specialists in microelectronics
Belarus has not just preserved its unique industries. The country constantly modernizes them, strengthening their already strong base of fundamental research. Without false modesty, Belarusian scientific schools are among the best in the world. Today, specialists in microelectronics are trained at the country's three leading universities: Belarusian State University (BSU), Belarusian National Technical University (BNTU) and Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics (BSUIR). Each university has its distinguishing features. For example, Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics keeps the focus on micro and nanoelectronics. The last year's enrollment at the university exceeded 2,000 first-year students. In 2023, some specialties have been placed into the category of the most in-demand skills for the country's economy. These are “micro- and nanoelectronics”, “electronic systems and technologies”, “radio systems and radio technologies”, “nanotechnologies and nanomaterials”. In other words, the future belongs to such specialists who are unlikely to be left out of work. It must be said that the competition for admission to BSUIR is stably high. More than half of applicants have a total of over 300 points. As a rule, the university graduates have no problems with job placement. Such specialists are sought by IT companies, state-run economic organizations, banks, and mobile operators.
Viktor Stempitsky, BSUIR Vice Rector for Research, told us about the training of specialists in microelectronics at the university. “Belarus, and our university in particular, offers an effective training of specialists in microelectronics technology, its fundamentals and computer-aided design. Interaction with our Russian partners is also carried out within the framework of the Union State. Today the National Academy of Sciences and our university are working on the implementation of programs on microelectronics. These are microsensors, materials, and microelectronic products,” Viktor Stempitsky said.
As for cooperation with the real sector of the Russian economy, he added that the parties were actively working together in the area of space technology. “We are making progress and getting good results,” Viktor Stempitsky stressed.
What countries Belarus cooperates with to develop microelectronics industry
The president urges not to get locked up within national borders, but to cooperate with friendly countries. Let us take an example of Aleksandr Lukashenko's recent foreign visits to Zimbabwe and the United Arab Emirates. Investors are ready to put funds in Belarusian microelectronics. Even technologically powerful China buys certain products from us, although it has enough production facilities. Within the past five years, China has spent about $50 billion on its microelectronics industry.
Belarus and Russia are channeling additional financial resources into the development of the microelectronics industry today. It will foster consequent technological advance in the economy sector. “It may be good that they have enforced sanctions. We will now focus on ourselves. We will not count on selling natural gas, oil, on earning billions of U.S. dollars and giving them back in exchange for all kinds of ‘trifles' like Russia [used to]. We will make these trifles on our own and will make them in Russia and Belarus. These are our plans,” Aleksandr Lukashenko told the media in March 2023.
What prospects Belarusian microelectronics has
Belarus has recently approved its microelectronics development program 2030. It consists of two parts: science and manufacturing. That means a cluster which includes both enterprises and academic organizations. The government expects revenues from the sale of products to soar three times and reach $350 million. A list of required electronic components has been defined with Russian partners and a road map for microelectronic production development has been agreed upon. A joint center of photomasks has been set up. But let us be objective. With all the successes of domestic microelectronics, it is impossible for the country to stop importing components at once. And in fact there is no need for this. However, what we know for sure is that our country has high scientific and human resource potential. This means that we are capable of making progress, not simply catching up with it.
“Science should play a more noticeable role, to put it mildly, in the development of the country. We should heighten the role of science and scientists dramatically. Instead of incentivizing scientists, we should create a situation where scientists are pushing industries into new technological paradigms amidst a cut-throat competition. You have every right to do so. Domestic science can do a lot: from artificial intelligence to vital medicines and technologies. The Intellectual Belarus exhibition that traveled across all regions clearly demonstrated this. We will soon build a huge exhibition complex, like nothing that Belarus has had before, to showcase these achievements,” the Belarusian head of state said during his annual Address to the Belarusian people and the National Assembly in 2023.