By Brad Slingerlend, and Jon Bathgate
The semiconductor shortage means different things to different people and industries.
For gamers and cryptocurrency miners, it’s an irritation. For carmakers, including Volkswagen /zigman2/quotes/204431732/composite VWAGY +3.32% , Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +2.51% and Daimler /zigman2/quotes/203566154/composite DDAIF +2.68% , it’s a red flag for their businesses. From a national security standpoint, relying on Taiwan for the production of critical chip components for equipment such as the F-35 fighter is scary and untenable.
No critical system or network you can think of — defense, power, transport, finance, communications, health care — can function without semiconductors, and our dependence on these components only deepens as the digitization of the global economy accelerates.
The Biden administration and Taiwan will discuss the global automotive semiconductor shortage this week, Taiwan News said , citing a Bloomberg report.
The most advanced semiconductors, which can cost as much as $500 million to design, are as fundamental to Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +3.16% cars, Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +1.98% iPhones and the cloud as the software that runs such platforms. Software may well be eating the world , but chips are the secret sauce, the engine driving digital transformation, and without them there could be no Information Age.
U.S. lags behind
The problem is, while the U.S. is the undisputed leader in the design of the advanced chips needed for the most demanding artificial intelligence, graphics, cloud computing and communications processes, companies including Nvidia /zigman2/quotes/200467500/composite NVDA +4.23% , Advanced Micro Devices /zigman2/quotes/208144392/composite AMD +2.05% , Apple, Qualcomm /zigman2/quotes/206679220/composite QCOM +2.39% , Broadcom /zigman2/quotes/200646538/composite AVGO +2.56% , Alphabet /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +2.40% and Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +1.94% depend to a huge degree on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing /zigman2/quotes/204359850/composite TSM +3.41% and Samsung Electronics to produce their most bleeding-edge chips.
As a result, with the exception of Micron Technology /zigman2/quotes/205710729/composite MU +3.25% and Intel /zigman2/quotes/203649727/composite INTC +2.48% , the U.S. lags behind significantly in the manufacture and testing of the most complex chips.
Over the past 20 years or more, the heavyweights of U.S. chip design have earned billions of dollars and have seen their market valuations propelled into the trillions of dollars in part by the transfer of semiconductor manufacturing to Asia while completely de-emphasizing investment in production on U.S. soil. While outsourcing to Taiwan Semi and Samsung, made sense from a business standpoint — these chipmakers have unrivalled know-how — it has also ramped fragility in the critical chip supply chain to a dangerous degree.
During the manufacturing, testing and packaging process, about 70% of the world’s most advanced chips pass through Taiwan, which Beijing insists is part of a greater China. Tensions over the island’s sovereignty resurfaced in late January when the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike force was ordered into Taiwanese waters after China flew 13 warplanes — including nuclear-capable bombers — over its neighbor’s airspace.
The threat is so grave that it is becoming increasingly apparent that leading U.S. chip designers need to work together urgently, and with the support of the federal government, to reduce our dependence on Taiwan-based contract chipmaking.
Joint venture needed
In short, Apple, Amazon, Google, Nvidia, AMD, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Intel and others need to form and fund a joint venture to build advanced chip manufacturing capacity on U.S. soil. It will take time and money as foundries are almost unimaginably complex and expensive.
Taiwan Semi in January raised its 2021 capital expenditure budget by 47% to a record $25 billion-$28 billion as it seeks to add capacity after setting new marks for quarterly revenue and net income. Among its planned investments is a $12 billion foundry in Arizona, scheduled to open in 2024, while Samsung is mulling a $17 billion expansion of its advanced logic chipmaking plant in Austin, Texas.
But these initiatives won’t significantly impact U.S. chipmaking’s shortcomings. The Arizona foundry will have an annual capacity of about 240,000 wafers, less than 2% of Taiwan Semi’s output of 12 million-13 million wafers, while the technology deployed at the fab will be several years behind what Taiwan Semi and Samsung will offer in Asia. So to make a meaningful difference, a U.S. joint venture may need pooled resources in the order of about $100 billion, as well as government incentives such as tax breaks and visa waivers to attract highly skilled manufacturing engineers from Taiwan Semi and Samsung, which should be a part of the coalition.
Possible U.S. sites
The project could build upon centers of excellence in U.S. chipmaking. Micron has plants in Utah, Idaho and Virginia, Intel makes chips in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico, and Globalfoundries took advantage of benefits such as cheap power and state incentives to build an advanced fab in upstate New York.
Without such action, the U.S. risks adding to the hazard. While the U.S. accounts for more than half of global semiconductor equipment making, chip design software and fabless chip revenue, its share of total installed semiconductor manufacturing is just 12.5%, or about 3 million wafers per month, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association .
And because U.S. fabless chip companies now almost exclusively rely on Asian contractors for advanced processes, the U.S. share of global capacity is forecast to drop to 10% by 2030, while Asia’s climbs to 83%.
The shift to Asia, coupled with Intel’s well-chronicled manufacturing struggles, mean the U.S. is now without truly leading-edge chip manufacturing onshore for the first time since the invention of the transistor.
But the decline can be arrested by combining the skills and resources of the best U.S. chip designers with those of the leading global contract manufacturers along with state and federal governments. To ensure that the U.S.’s national strategic and economic interests aren’t further jeopardized by an over-reliance on an island nation in the South China Sea whose sovereignty is in dispute, it’s imperative that all stakeholders — public and private —- come together and create a 10- to 20-year plan to build significant semiconductor manufacturing capacity on U.S. soil.
Brad Slingerlend and Jon Bathgate are investors at Denver-based NZS Capital.