16 July 2012 by Chris Edwards
Organisations such as SEMI and the Semiconductor Industry Association often point to a diagram of an inverted triangle to show how fundamental to world GDP the chipmaking business is - and the suppliers to it. More than a trillions dollars' worth of goods rely on the semiconductors inside them. The services and businesses wrapped around them account for even more.
Towards the bottom of this pyramid lies the $300bn semiconductor industry into which feeds the equipment and materials businesses, each accounting for around $50bn. Within the semiconductor sector itself you have three or four giant suppliers. At the top, with close to 10 per cent of the total is Intel, followed by Samsung Semiconductor and the Taiwanese foundry TSMC.
TSMC has an intriguing position in the pyramid because it supplies so many of the companies who are attempting to compete with Intel and Samsung but cannot - or at least believe they cannot - afford to build their own fabs. According to analysis carried out by Future Horizons, the foodchain of which TSMC sits at the head is equivalent to between 1 and 2 per cent of global GDP. That, says Future Horizons president Malcolm Penn, is a higher contribution to global GDP than that of Korea, Samsung's home nation.
"That's really too big to fail," says Penn. "It's a huge amount of responsibility, for what is one of the finest companies in the world. But it is quite a concentration of power."
Among other things, TSMC's fabs sit in one of the most seismically active regions of the world - although they are not concentrated in one part of the island of Taiwan. The more immediate issue is that TSMC has consistently outperformed its competitors and now, much like Intel, has such a commanding lead that it is hard for anyone to catch up. A yield problem at TSMC would translate into a big problem for much of the electronics economy.
Now fabless companies such as Qualcomm publicly moot the option of building their own fabs to guarantee supply by what could prove to be a monopoly on leading-edge foundry production. Intel and Samsung are spending big on their own production and some of that is trickling down into a foundry offering but it's tough to see them supporting direct competitors - although Samsung does supply the chips to Apple which competes head-on with its parent company in phones.
However, foundry operations are tough to manage - as TSMC has demonstrated by pulling ahead of its competitors so comprehensively.
GlobalFoundries may provide significant competition in the years to come - as long as its owner ATIC continues to invest heavily and those investments pay off. But, in the near term at least the concentration of power in a few hands in a strategically important economic sector should be a big concern not just for those working in the industry but for governments.
Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 16 July 2012 11:10 AM General
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