Every aspect of human existence is running on semiconductors
April 15, 2021 8:21 PM   Subscribe

We've run our supply chains to the edge in terms of optimizing for cost at the expense of robustness. That said, fabs are now so fantastically expensive that dropping down to two companies at the bleeding edge is unsurprising. TSMC and Samsung are the two companies now capable of producing the latest nodes; if they go down in some fashion, that's Nvidia, Apple, AMD, Intel, and a slew of others whose roadmaps end up going in reverse for probably 5 years.

I'm not sure how it will play out when China goes to take over Taiwan, but controlling TSMC is the grand prize there. If the US actually did industrial policy even from just a defense perspective, this potential scenario would have been very high on the priority list 10 years ago, if not 20.
posted by MillMan at 9:13 PM on April 15, 2021 [19 favorites]

Back when I did chip design the general premise among us lowly staffers was that TSMC wasn’t a prize, because in any conflict its facilities would be crippled.

No idea if that’s still the case, but we felt the fabs would get hit one way or the other, and then those fabs would be worthless for several years at minimum. These are places that use unimaginably dangerous chemicals (that will literally set fire to concrete and wet sand) to scrub rogue organics from the silicon; one missile means they spend years cleaning everything before they can spin up again.
posted by aramaic at 9:47 PM on April 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

one missile means they spend years cleaning everything before they can spin up again

Are China's best fabs on the same technical and production levels as those of TSMC? China may be working aggressively to catch up, but in the meantime, such a missile may just as well hurt them, as much as the rest of the world.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:28 PM on April 15, 2021

Holy crap that's a big wafer. I mean I knew on paper they were making them that big now but seeing someone hold one puts it into perspective. The silicon ingots they grow to make those wafers have to be utterly enormous.

Chip fabrication facilities are so insanely complicated it boggles the mind. I think one of the most intense things I've ever seen was watching what I think was one of the Intel plants near Phoenix out in Mesa being torn down.

First off even when it was half torn down the structure and the lot it was on was utterly massive. The only larger industrial buildings I've seen have been large aircraft manufacturing buildings like the Boeing buildings in Everett, WA. I've seen steel mills that were smaller and had less acreage going on.

The other really intense thing was just how packed that facility was with pipes, wires, infrastructure and so much more and realizing it was all so obsolete at that point that it was just being torn down wholesale. I'm sure they salvaged as much equipment and tools as they saw use for but you could see during the teardown process that it was still packed with stuff like furniture, fixtures, lighting, wiring and so on that the building still appeared to be more solid than open spaces and it was all going into the scrapyard.

It was like watching something from Neo-Tokyo in the Akira movie slowly blow up over weeks as huge excavators, backhoes and demolition equipment slowly chewed apart a building 7-8 stories tall and the size of a small city packed full of small, shiny metal bits.

I remember having the thought that looked everything like a large, complicated chip had been enlarged from the size of a fingernail to the size of a small city and now dozens of robotic ants were chewing that massive and complicated chip back into sand.
posted by loquacious at 1:28 AM on April 16, 2021 [12 favorites]

Doesn't anyone find it suspicious that there's a global chip shortage at the same time as an unprecedented rollout of a vaccine the authorities emphatically deny contains 5G chips? Wake up sheeple!
posted by acb at 2:11 AM on April 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I have been thinking about how Taiwan must be shitting metaphorical bricks after the recent events in Hong Kong.

I used to really enjoy the pithiness of H.G Wells's "Civilization is a race between education and self-destruction." I now think - in addition to it being wrong - it was overly optimistic.
posted by Glomar response at 5:05 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Smart" devices usually have a shorter supported life than "dumb" items, and I would be delighted to see most manufacturers ditching IoT functionality from their products in order to side-step this shortage.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:21 AM on April 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

Someone told me that, in addition to the overall industry situation's troubles, there was a fire at the only plant that manufactures a chip that is used in many audio DSP products, and some kinds of gear are about to become hard to find. I don't think this affects laptops, tablets, or phones; I don't know about gaming consoles. It affects some kinds of pro audio gear, and also apparently may cause big problems for companies like Denon, who have a new A/V receiver coming out.
posted by thelonius at 6:40 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

The complexity of any recent semiconductor process is astounding. There can be upwards of 250 processes in bringing a silicon bool to a diced and packaged device. Each tool in the process is baselined and controlled to an astounding manner. Most of the time there's a PhD who understands all of the facets of this one part of the process watching over a small group of tools that make one piece in the processing chain. This person(s) are also on call if there's any issue with said process/tool. Process Engineers in semiconductor fabs are usually half data scientist, half specialist in the process, half over-stressed/worked ball worrying about a 0.01% drop in device yield due to their process.

At intel they have something called copy exactly! which basically means you can't change any part of the fab process without having a damn good reason to do so. If you make a deposition tool, the part of the semi world I used to work, this can include changing a component in your Bill of Materials. This might be one of your printed circuit boards that controllers part of your tool. Maybe a capacitor that you can't find anywhere in the world right now... so now you have to explain to intel why you want to change part of your tool which is part of their exceptionally well controlled process. Now imagine every supplier in your 250 process chain having to do this because they can't get buy many of the components they need...

In any large fab Semiconductor processes are developed at great expense over years of time. New fabs can cost tens of billions of dollars.

Based on the total fab capacity that's needed, each tool in tool in the processing chain is baselined in Wafer per hour (WPH). When there's a problem with one process or tool it impacts creates a bottleneck at that point in the processing chain and everyone starts racing to get it fixed. Generally there's extra capacity to prevent breakpoints and keep things moving smoothly.

When extra demand ramps up you can purchase new tools from a supplier, often with many month long lead times, and add capacity where you need it but at some point you just don't have the floor space to add more capacity in this multi-billion dollar fab.

An aside, the 450mm wafers pictured in the article are dead. There was a spin up from most Semiconductor Equipment Manufacturers for 450mm tools but the cost and challenges in moving from 300mm are so great that it was killed before a fab was ever built.

While 300mm wafers are standard there are still large portions of the industry using 200mm wafers. Either older processes that don't need the latest technology or smaller cottage industries that don't need the volume. Supporting equipment that's ~30 years old and still ticking away can be a huge part of a Semiconductor Equipment Manufacturer's income.
posted by Quack at 7:19 AM on April 16, 2021 [15 favorites]

I just watched this short piece on EUV Lithography, the next step in chip fabs ... the process they’ve invented to make this work is mad and gives a good sense of the ridiculous complexity in chip fabs in general.
posted by wemayfreeze at 9:31 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just want to say thanks for this post and awesome comments.
posted by Alex404 at 11:02 AM on April 16, 2021

I do electronic design at my company, and also manage what little supply chain involvement we have. We're not shipping any devices, all are used internally. So my sourcing problems are quite easy to manage, for now. Mostly I'm watching from the sidelines.

Personally, I believe the US lacks the long-term planning capability to build things like fabs at a national level. There is no national policy consistency on the timeframe necessary for such large projects.
posted by ryanrs at 6:09 PM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

ryanrs, do you think that a sufficiently large company (e.g., Apple) could do it on their own?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:53 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sure, there's lots of fabs in the US. I just don't think companies are going to launch a bunch of long-term capital investment projects just because Biden said something.
posted by ryanrs at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

I work on the mixed signal / analog side and we'll be on 200mm wafers for another decade at least, by which time (please god) I should be retiring. Gate size on the products I work on is .18 micron, which was state of the art in the 90s, but the gate count on these products is a bunch of orders of magnitude less than modern CPUs and GPUs.

Back when I did chip design the general premise among us lowly staffers was that TSMC wasn’t a prize, because in any conflict its facilities would be crippled.

For sure it is not as simple as capturing a factory during say WW2, which is kind of the simple model I have in my head. But destroying their facilities or capturing Taiwan essentially intact then dictating sales are both powerful outcomes for China.

Are China's best fabs on the same technical and production levels as those of TSMC?

They're not particularly close in terms of fabs, fab equipment, or design expertise. They'll probably get there eventually, but it will be similar to catching up in the aerospace and space realms. Even with all the money, momentum, and the speed of change in the modern day, such complex products and processes take years and decades to advance.
posted by MillMan at 7:23 PM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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