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Semiconductor Dependency

Semiconductors are found everywhere in the modern world. Companies and countries are racing to position themselves in this vital market.
March 4, 2021

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Semiconductors are found in nearly every electronic device and many other products that the modern world relies on, from computers, phones and televisions to cars and medical devices. Chips are increasingly powerful and tiny. Semiconductor transistors have been shrunk from 10,000 nanometers in 1971 to 5 nanometers (5 billionths of a meter!) in 2020. Given their centrality to so much of our modern existence, it's not a surprise that producing them is a huge enterprise, worth an estimated US$433 billion in 2020. Their economic importance and their role in defense and other essential systems causes nations to worry about their competitiveness and access to adequate supplies of cutting-edge semiconductors. With 47% of sales in 2019, the U.S. is the global leader in semiconductors, though much of the manufacturing happens in Asia. Five of the biggest eight semiconductor companies are based in the U.S. While China imports vast amounts of semiconductors to plug into computers, phones and much more, its companies have just 5% of total semiconductor sales.

Because China can't meet its own demand for semiconductors and because it sees advanced semiconductors as a "choke point" technology, it has long sought to develop the nation's semiconductor industry. The Made in China 2025 call to action included the aim of producting 70% of its semiconductor needs by 2025. Arizona-based IC Insights believes it will only manage to reach a third of that goal. At the same time, U.S. sanctions have curtailed some U.S. semiconductor and equipment sales to China and blocked the export of some chip-making technology to China, hampering high profile companies such as Huawei and Xiaomi. Many suggest that such constraints only increase the determination of China's leaders to build China's own capacity. Semiconductor design and manufacture is competitive, challenging and capital intensive. One high profile attempt, by US$19 billion Wuhan Hongxin Semiconductor, to enter the market ended with the city taking over the bankrupt firm last summer. This week employees were told they would be laid off. Some had originally been offered US$300,000 salaries to join the firm.