A global shortage of semiconductors is growing out of control. Almost all types of electronic goods are affected, from smartphones and gaming equipment to vehicles and kitchen appliances. While the semiconductor manufacturers struggle to supply their largest customers like Apple and Samsung, smaller customers like automobile and appliance manufacturers are experiencing delays that are now halting the production lines: just a small chip missing and the vehicle can't get finished (The Guardian).
How could this happen?
The basis lies again, of course, in the corona crisis with initial production delays, now alleviated. And then a couple of additional developments.
- People bought more stay-at-home electronic goods in the pandemic, increasing demand: TVs, home computers, game consoles, 5G enabled phones, and whatever you yourself bought to stave off boredom.
- Vehicle manufacturers have now finally and en masse decided on electric cars, mostly electronics-stuffed. All this requires semiconductors.
- Not described elsewhere, but a known fact, is when demand of certain items increases China, it is likely to affect the entire globe. We note here baby milk powder, hardwood, (protected) exotic animals, and wild mushrooms as simple examples.
- Then D. Trump (US National Vulgarist) added the high-tech front to the US-China Trade War: semiconductors. And there you have it, a perfect storm.
Who makes the chips?
While a number of major tech companies claim to be chip manufacturers, many of those companies simply aren't. They farm the manufacturing out to technologically adept lower income countries: China, Taiwan, South Korea. Note here the new-fangled idiosyncrasy of terms: a manufacturer who does not manufacture is called "fabless", while the jargon for an actual manufacturer is a "foundry". The top 5 foundries, listed roughly according to size:
- TSMC (Taiwan), leader, cutting edge chips, standard chips
- Samsung Foundries (South Korea), Intel (USA), SMIC (China), for standard chips
- Global Foundries (USA), Skywater (USA), both for specialty chips
Note: Of course there are many smaller foundries all over, but generally a large manufacturer would avoid to get the components for a specific item from a slew of different smaller companies. Note also that world leader TSMC also operates semiconductor foundries in China, producing standard chips. And also note that China is on a great drive to expand local semiconductor manufacturing for standard and high-tech chips.
A complete list of List of Semiconductor fabrication plants is shown in Wikipedia. Toggle the list for Production Capacity (size). Also toggle it for Process Technology (sophistication) to see who manufactures the newest/ fastest/ smallest high-end chips (indicated by 3nm or 5nm), that is by the way TSMC in Taiwan, possibly by order and design of Apple.
We've already seen the dependence of all modern products and manufacturing on these semiconductors. The concentration of the bulk of manufacturing in an area where one single country, China, is showing increasing influence, to the degree of threats and even military grandstanding, should be seen as a global geopolitical socio-economic risk.
Whatever the few pennies it costs more, these semiconductors should also be made on grand scale in other areas.
In cases of crises or conflicts, the obvious aim is to secure needed strategic materials. These used to be oil, steel, coal, food, but also important manufacturing. While the fundamentals of strategic materials remain, the content changes, and now includes rare metals, water and... semiconductor manufacturing.
Just one example. "Beijing’s main problem is the manufacturing of high-end chips. Huawei’s Kirin chipsets are made by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) using American technology." (TRT World). Now that's quite a conflagration of dependencies, and it's already causing trouble.
Apparently at mid 2021, the greatest bottleneck are the small IC chips that control larger or smaller LCD screens. Specifically these chips are not made in high tech IC foundries making high-end 10 or 7 nanometer chips, but in rather older, run of the mill factories making 40 to 150 nanometer chips. As everyone has been rushing to upgrade (ostensibly to make more money), the "manufacturers" were caught flatfooted when demand for cheap ICs controlling mundane LCD screens suddenly mushroomed during the pandemic. And now, experts expect the backlog to last well into 2023!
Of course, the semiconductor sector will normalize at some time, hopefully with more geographical diversification. But as before, chips are not likely to get less expensive.
But as of mid 2021 the pandemic continues to cause a slew of shortages, either caused by production issues, export stops, changed consumer behavior, or, like in China, industrial catch-up growth - again affecting the globe.
Of course, first it was a shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE), then a shortage in long-distance freight, then a shortage of containers, then a shortage of semiconductors. As India undergoes a catastrophic third wave, it halts all exports of the vaccines expected in many, mostly developing countries. But as economies begin to recuperate the scope of shortages expands from aluminum foil to construction wood.
This leads to price increases. Some of those increases will not be temporary, so according to some specialists, "inflation" may be on the loom...
History of TSMC: