The crushingly complex, high-stakes business of making semiconductors has always been a battle between global giants. Now it is also a race among governments.
These critical bits of technology — also known as integrated circuits or, more commonly, just chips — may be the tiniest yet most exacting products ever manufactured. And because they are so difficult and costly to produce, there is a worldwide reliance on just a handful of companies.
That dependence has been brought into stark relief by shortages during the pandemic and by a ratcheting up of US restrictions on chip exports to China amid rising tensions around trade and security.
Tens of billions of dollars will be spent in the coming years in a dash to expand production, with geopolitical as well as economic fallout.
Why the war over chips?
Chipmaking has become an increasingly precarious business. New plants have a price tag of up to US$20 billion, take years to build and need to be run flat-out for 24 hours a day to turn a profit.
The scale required has reduced the number of companies with leading-edge technology to just three — Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and Intel of the US.
Chipmakers are under increasing scrutiny over what they sell to China, the largest market for chips. Shifts in the global supply chain and recent shortages has governments rushing to subsidise new factories and equipment, from the US and Europe to China and Japan.
Why are chips so critical?
They are the thing that makes electronic items smart. Made from materials deposited on disks of silicon, chips can perform a variety of functions.
Memory chips, which store data, are relatively simple and are traded like commodities. Logic chips, which run programs and act as the brains of a device, are more complex and expensive.
And as the technology running devices — from space hardware to refrigerators — is getting smarter and more connected, semiconductors are more pervasive in the modern world. That explosion has some analysts forecasting that the industry will double in value to become a trillion-dollar market this decade.
Is the world short of computer chips?
Pandemic lockdowns and supply-chain shortages made many types of chips scarce for a period of about two years. That event helped usher in this new era, with an increasing realisation of their strategic importance. Now that PC and phone demand is cooling off post-pandemic — and much of the world is falling into a recession — the cycle has turned.
Chipmakers are warning of a glut in certain areas, though some customers including carmakers are still struggling to get enough. Yet for political reasons chipmakers are still poised to add capacity at a time of shaky demand – which could further upend the industry.
How is the competition going?
TSMC is unveiling bigger budgets, while Samsung is introducing cutting-edge technology ahead of its rivals. TSMC’s revenue is expected to surge 40 per cent this year. In 2021, Samsung overtook Intel to become the world’s largest chipmaker; this year, TSMC is on course to overtake Intel.
China is pushing hard to catch up but is facing more US moves to restrict access to American gear for designing and manufacturing chips. The US is also targeting technology that it has determined could be misused for military purposes. Notably, China’s Huawei Technologies, which once led the market for mobile phone infrastructure and rivaled Samsung as one of the biggest smartphone makers, was cut off from its primary suppliers. In any case, China has a long way to go and its task is getting harder.
US politicians have decided that they need to do more than just hold back China. The Chips and Science Act, signed into law on Aug 9, will provide US$50 billion of federal money to support US production of semiconductors and foster a skilled workforce needed by the industry.
European Union officials are exploring ways to build an advanced semiconductor factory in Europe, possibly with assistance from TSMC and Samsung, as part of its goal to double chip production to 20 per cent of the global market by 2030.
How does Taiwan fit into all this?
The island emerged as the dominant player in outsourced chipmaking partly because of a government decision in the 1970s to promote the electronics industry. TSMC almost single-handedly created the business of building chips for others, one that was embraced as the cost of building plants skyrocketed.
Large-scale customers like Apple gave it the massive volume to build industry-leading expertise and now the world now relies on it. Matching its scale and skills would take years and cost a fortune.
Politics have made the race about more than money, though, with the US signaling that it will continue efforts to restrict China’s access to American technology used in Taiwan’s foundries.
China has long claimed the island, just 100 miles off its coast, as a renegade province and threatened to invade to prevent its independence. Recent military exercises by China have reignited concerns about the world’s dependence on Taiwan for chips.