The global shortage of computer chip manufacturing has highlighted the urgency for the US to have a robust High Tech Manufacturing sector. As a result, the Biden administration has signed a bill to boost chip manufacturing in the US. In addition to computer chips, what other exciting advancements and innovations are US companies making in High Tech manufacturing? What is coming out in the near future? What would it take for the US to become a High Tech Manufacturing powerhouse? To address these questions we are talking to leaders of High Tech Manufacturing industries. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Diorio.
Chris Diorio is CEO, Vice Chair, and Co-Founder at Impinj, a leading RAIN RFID provider and Internet of Things pioneer. In addition, Chris is an Affiliate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington and a Director of the RAIN Alliance. Passionate about technology, Chris is a leading pioneer of RAIN RFID and the expansion of the Internet of Things to include tens of billions of everyday items. He has more than 175 issued patents, 69 scholarly publications, and has received numerous awards including EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Pacific Northwest, EE Times/EDN Innovator of the Year, AIM Global Ted Williams Award, RFID Journal Special Achievement Award, and the IEEE Paul Rappaport Award. He has also received Packard, Sloan, Presidential, and ONR fellowships. Chris earned his Ph.D. from Caltech and has over 30 years’ experience in computer and radio engineering. A fan of all things fast, Chris has the biggest smile on his face when racing his car around a track.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in manufacturing?
From an early age, I was curious and loved to understand how things worked and build things myself. I would invariably ask anyone near me “why did they design it this way?” as I would take things apart and rebuild them. My favorite toy as a small child was an erector set. In elementary school, I tried to build a robot. In middle school, I built a soap-box car without plans or assistance. I guess you could say building and manufacturing are in my bones. From a career perspective, I served in engineering and leadership roles at TRW and American Systems Corporation before completing my doctoral degree in electrical engineering at Caltech. And from 1997–2005, I pursued an academic career at the University of Washington focused on studying the fundamental difference between how digital computers and brains “compute.” This study led to the development of a family of semiconductor devices useful for analog-circuit design, silicon neural networks, and modeling neurobiology. I called these devices silicon synapses and that low-power, adaptive-circuit mindset became the basis for the founding of Impinj in 2000.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’ve been lucky to be at the right place at the right time many times in my career and I guess you could also say that I see every challenge as an opportunity. When I founded Impinj, we quickly recognized the immaturity of existing RFID technology and the absence of a single worldwide standard that could support connectivity for everyday physical objects such as retail apparel, automotive parts, golf balls, medical supplies, and more. So, we chartered a plan to rectify both problems, championing a single, global, technologically advanced RFID protocol, that today is called RAIN RFID. Over a period of 18 months, we united major retailers and technology companies behind a single worldwide RFID standard, essentially obsolescing four existing standards in the process. At the same time, we led changes in frequency regulations to allow RAIN RFID to operate in Europe and Asia. Impinj was at the forefront of this movement and was first to market with products in 2005. Looking back, it was an incredible undertaking and one I feel privileged to have been a part of. In 2022, RAIN RFID provided connectivity for over 29 billion things, significantly expanding the Internet of Things to everyday items. It is helping companies worldwide — including Walmart, UPS, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, and Volvo — drive efficiencies, reduce waste, enable the circular economy, and improve peoples’ lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite sayings is from T.S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” When we founded Impinj and began charting the path for what could be done with RAIN RFID we had a bold vision: a world where everything is connected, trillions of everyday items. IoT was in its infancy and wireless connections were just beginning to be broadly available. Any start-up is a huge risk — but that risk has paid off enormously. We’ve built an incredible company, helped build an industry, and are now realizing our vision to connect everything. And we still have further to go — we continue to solve complex problems, invent new products, and grow the market.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about High Tech Manufacturing. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now? How do you think this will help people?
Impinj’s vision is boundless IoT, and our mission is to connect everything. We see a future where trillions of everyday things are connected to the Internet and businesses and people are interacting with those things in ways that make the world a better place for all. It’s a big vision and undertaking and one that requires us to innovate and invent continuously.
Impinj designs and manufactures RAIN RFID tag chips, reader chips, readers, and gateways. Today, we are focused on developing products and capabilities that protect people, items, and the environment. We recently launched the Impinj Authenticity solution engine to aid brand owners, retailers, and supply chain owners in combating counterfeit goods. Counterfeits have long been a scourge in the marketplace, eroding trust, creating waste, and hurting people. Fake cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, building materials, and baby food can put lives at risk.
The Impinj Authenticity solution engine offers cost-effective, cryptographic authentication for everyday items — such as retail merchandise, automotive parts, and medications — across the entirety of an enterprise’s supply chain, from manufacturing through shipping, customs, store inventory, point-of-sale, and returns processing. The implications are enormous — brand owners can have a more secure supply chain and consumers can have confidence that what they are buying is authentic. We are working closely with our global partner ecosystem to drive this new capability into businesses worldwide.
In addition to what you are working on, what other exciting advancements and innovations are US companies making in High Tech manufacturing?
Impinj has sold more than 60 billion semiconductor chips to date, and that number is growing rapidly. We manufacture our chips in third-party facilities, including some at a Camas, Washington semiconductor foundry. Due to the current semiconductor shortfall, we have been unable to supply enough chips to our customers, with demand exceeding supply by more than 50% for more than a year. The CHIPS and Science Act is a first step toward giving us, and companies like us, the promise of more semiconductor supply and manufacturing in the United States. I hope it will also advance STEM education and bring and keep manufacturing expertise in the US. For Impinj, being able to manufacture more chips in the US will help us advance our vision of connecting trillions of everyday things to drive efficiencies, reduce waste, enable the circular economy and, ultimately, we believe, improve peoples’ lives. As we wait for those new foundries to be built, I expect we will continue to see advancements that drive new economies of scale.
From your vantage point as an insider, what exciting developments will be coming out in the near future?
I am excited by how visionary end customers are driving digital transformation within their businesses and delighting customers with RAIN RFID. Retailers like Zara and Decathlon provide their customers with better omnichannel and self-checkout experiences. Delta Air Lines provides travelers with real-time updates on the location of their bags. TopGolf provides players’ stats and a fun, engaging game.
In the future, we expect companies will develop solutions that expand RAIN RFID beyond these business environments into consumers’ homes, enabling devices, apps, and products to connect and interact in new and exciting ways as brands create new experiences that drive greater brand loyalty. Impinj helps companies go from imagining to reality. Today, Impinj RAIN RFID reader chips can be embedded in smart appliances, automobiles, office-security systems, industrial mobile devices, and more. They’re fast, reliable, accurate, and low-cost. With these features, it’s not hard to imagine embedded RAIN RFID enabling digital pantries, assistants, doorbells, thermostats, virtual reality devices, and smartphones to create new experiences for consumers to interact with their things.
I also believe environmental stewardship is a corporate imperative. I believe the Impinj platform can reduce waste and increase sustainability for trillions of everyday items by giving businesses and individuals easy access to information that can reduce an item’s environmental impact at every stage of the item’s life. To that end, Impinj is committed to working closely with our partners and enterprise end users to reduce both their and our environmental impact as we develop products that help businesses protect resources, operate efficiently, and recycle responsibly.
What are the three things that most excite you about the state of US High Tech Manufacturing? Why?
Some of the biggest developments of the 20th century were driven by American ingenuity and manufacturing. With the renewed interest in bringing high-tech manufacturing back to the US there’s a tremendous opportunity to rethink manufacturing processes and drive environmentally responsible practices.
I go back to my childhood question, “Why did they design that this way?” We should be challenging ourselves to parlay our knowledge to make manufacturing better and more efficient. How can we create better working conditions for people? Can we create more with less waste? How can we create better, faster manufacturing processes?
Choice is the other thing that comes to mind. More options and healthy competition are needed in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. We are seeing significant growth in the RAIN RFID market. As RAIN RFID adoption continues to grow it will expand from its current 10’s of billions of chips per year to needing 100’s of billions of chips per year. Currently, there are only a few sources for this specialized, high-tech chip manufacturing. To have the option to manufacture in the US, particularly for those needs tied to critical infrastructure which have national security requirements, is a competitive advantage and will help to grow this market.
What are the three things that concern you about US High Tech Manufacturing? What would you suggest needs to be done to address those concerns?
US Manufacturing began significantly transitioning overseas as we moved from being an industrial economy to an information economy in the 1980’s. While there are companies that conduct high-tech manufacturing in this country, it’s not as prevalent as we want it to be. Government investment will certainly be a boon to US efforts, but more capital will be needed to truly drive a robust US High Tech Manufacturing sector. Historically, the US has invested heavily in research and development — which is fantastic — but then fails to support product manufacturing and commercialization. Support needs to be all the way through the process — from education to access to R&D funding through market introduction.
Based on your opinion or experience, what would it take for the US to become a High-Tech Manufacturing powerhouse?
Long-term vision and commitment are needed if the US is to become a high-tech manufacturing powerhouse. This will not happen overnight, or even within a decade. The building blocks need to be put in place — cultivating a workforce, developing and sharing best practices, and making it easier to manufacture domestically. What the Biden administration has provided is a starting point. Ongoing budget and support need to be maintained to ensure that this becomes an American legacy, not just an artifact of the current administration.
As you know, there are not that many women in High Tech Manufacturing. Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in these industries?
Cultivating women to enter high-tech careers begins with gender equality and access to educational opportunities, including removing educational biases. In the workplace, we need to remove hiring biases and make sure we are building a diverse workforce that provides equal opportunities for all. Parity in pay, the opportunity for promotion, family leave, and childcare are issues that need to be addressed.
We also need to look at workplace culture. A recent study found that 50% of women who go into tech leave by the age of 35. There are likely multiple reasons — corporate culture that doesn’t support female advancement, lack of clear career pathways, lack of mentors and female leaders all contribute to women not pursuing high tech careers.
We need to create environments that support girls pursuing academics and then sustained technology careers. At the collegiate level we need to make sure that women feel like they belong and see clear career pathways providing mentorship, internship, and role models that inspire. In the workplace, we need to create environments that support and keep women excited and engaged in their careers.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In High Tech Manufacturing?
I’ve talked before about three core principles: (1) Be Respectful; (2) Be Curious, Listen; (3) Lead by Example. I continuously promote these principles to Impinj employees, partners, and customers. To expand upon these values, I offer up passion and tenacity:
Curiosity and listening: Always be learning. I enjoy exploring unchartered paths and diving into new subjects. Curiosity about the world, how it works, what I can learn from others and what is possible drives me.
Passion: I think we’ve all been told “Do what you love” at one point or another. But I think it’s really about finding your passion and aligning your vision accordingly — whether it’s to solve a big problem, to help people, or to create something new — that helps you drive the day-to-day work.
Tenacity: High-tech manufacturing isn’t easy. There will be roadblocks along the way — whether it’s a problem that seems insurmountable, supply shortages, prototypes that don’t work the way you intend. What’s important is that you don’t give up. If you see every challenge as an opportunity, you will find another path to get to where you need to be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
I believe Impinj is at the forefront of a movement. We are on a path to connect the trillions of everyday items in people’s lives to the Internet. The potential impact is enormous. In the aviation industry, we help improve customer service and operational efficiencies with accurate, real-time data about luggage, assets, and equipment. In the healthcare industry, we streamline asset tracking, eliminate loss, improve supply management, enhance patient experiences, and enable better outcomes. We help the manufacturing industry improve operational efficiency with automated processes that change the way machines and humans work. In retail, we help optimize store operations, improve inventory availability, and enable seamless shopping experiences. And we help supply chain and logistics companies keep goods moving and operations informed with accurate, automated, and error-free shipment management. This is just a sampling of how we help companies around the world, and really just the beginning of our journey. We see tremendous opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives.