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Four companies will produce the microchips on which the global economy depends (qz.com)
44 points by tmoretti 1632 days ago | hide | past | web | 27 comments | favorite

While there's only a limited number of competitors in the high performance ASIC fabrication suitable for fast desktop CPUs space, the number of companies that operate plants that fabricate semiconductors is a lot larger: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_semiconductor_fabricat...

It's also notable that a lot of companies who outsource new chip development still have substantial ties with the people building their foundries and maintain significant capabilities for manufacturing. IBM for instance, could probably run enough of its own fabs again to not rely on fabs from others if it really wanted to.

There's also a small handful of fabs owned by governments and universities.

And while the trend lately has been towards fabless companies, companies who do their own stunts and run fabs are pretty valuable because of it and eventually it seems likely an area some companies may want to play with again.

For instance, can anyone think of a company with billions in cash reserves, a huge bent towards owning as much of its own supply chain as possible and a need for a lot of chips?

I can.

I think you see movement to higher end processes even in non-high end stuff.

There are lower-end[1] and higher-end[2] microcontrollers moving to more advanced processes. And due to the unique manufacturing requirements of those(building flash memory on chip), only a few companies can manufacture those.And this especially true since micro-controllers don't make that much money for fab owners.

You see the same story in medium-performance-asic's, fpga's, memories ,etc.

In the end, even when you don't have to move to newer(and rarer) manufacturing processes , it give you better prices, lower power and more capabilities. So it tends to happen.

[1]infeneon manufactures cortex-m0 on 65nm.32-bit , price: 0.25euro-1.25euro. Included for example a math co-processor for better motor control. [2]Renesas manufactures higher end microcontrollers on 40nm and working on 28nm. [3]Marvell does 55nm microcontroller with large ram, which it targets to internet controlled home appliances.

There are also tons of companies around the world that perform various sub processes in the microchip manufacturing industry. It's just these couple companies are big enough to do almost everything on their own. But Intel and AMD still rely on external suppliers for lithography machines for example.

I thought AMD sold their FABs awhile ago?

They did. AMD's fabs and manufacturing is what grew into Global Foundries.

Indeed. And not only has that company's relationship with their main chip supplier deteriorated, said supplier is hitting capacity constraints while attempting to satisfy their own demand:


and said company's other chip partner is building huge capacity in the same country for 14nm process.

Said company is also well known for investing in and reserving capacity from their partners, so it's not like they don't take a direct role in ensuring they have enough chips.

Samsung can't just divert capacity away for their own use if Apple basically owns it for N years.

This is in regards to the highest end fab technologies, which doesn't even include IBM who apparently have a 22nm fab. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_semiconductor_fabricati...

With the most advanced fab technologies there's a much smaller number of companies that can both afford the initial capital investment (these plants are _insanely_ expensive) and the engineering expertise / tools to even design at these processes. Meanwhile, the $3 microcontroller I buy that runs as 12mhz fits every requirement I have while being manufactured at a cheaper, but much larger process. The high end processors and FPGAs however, benefit much more from smaller feature sizes (and those FPGAs cost accordingly).

As far as I know, when these 4 companies make advancements, the entire industry benefits. For example, Nikon comes out with a more advanced stepper for 14nm processes, Intel is the one paying the premium for them, and later the rest of the industry can benefit from a more reliable 65/45/32nm process after the cutting edge companies have moved on. I believe this is true for the EDA tool space as well.

The last paragraph is a bit of speculation on my part. I'm not in the semiconductor field but I know a bit about it, and logically it makes sense for tools / equipment. It does not include things like internal knowledge about manufacturing reliably on a certain process however.

What's more worrying is that this number seems like it can only go down, not up. To build a company that could compete in this market would require both a mind-boggling amount of investment as well as the acquisition of decades of institutional knowledge.

Using today's fabrication techniques, yes. But not if new, less capital-intensive techniques are discovered.....

Makes me think AMD could see this + 3d printing(like makerbot and friends) as something they could move to…

It wouldn't work if a volume manufacturer had to sequentially make chips (especially if each one took a week, or longer, to fabricate). It would work for an individual though. Same way a 5ppm laser printer isn't good enough for a newspaper manufacturer, but is adequate at home.

Yeah I was thinking mostly from an individual standpoint (something that could be sold to more individuals rather than businesses). The market is still pretty new for this kind of tech, but if people can envision a future of what people could do with something like this, in 10 to 20 years it could be pretty big.

Could even have military applications (com gear is fried on an intel sensitive mission, and exfil is not for another week or two)…

That would be quite an about-face; Global Foundries was spun off from AMD in 2009.


Aren't there groups out there doing one-off chips using ion implantation?

One could envisage a machine that takes a silicon blank and blasts it with a steerable beam of dopant ions, similar to a small scale Cathode Ray Tube, with the silicon in place of the phosphor. A CRT is feasible to DIY [1,2]. What about an ion implantation device? Okay, it won't do 14nm features first up, but could it make a working transistor??

[1] http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Electron-Accelerator-A-C...

[2] http://www.sparkbangbuzz.com/crt/crt6.htm

> Aren't there groups out there doing one-off chips using ion implantation?

Also this group, https://code.google.com/p/homecmos

maybe one can apply a magnetic field to the surface of the silicon blanks to help with placement of the dopants?

I can't get a picture of that in my mind. Any more details?

One advantage over a CRT is that there is no need to view the "screen", so equipment can go under the Si target. Maybe a very sharp probe, meaning it has a very high electric field intensity at its tip? The probe could be shifted x-y using piezo actuators. If the ion source has a very small physical extent, there would be essentially a "single"[1] electric field line running from the ion source, though the target, to the under-target probe. (Does Si allow E field lines though like this?) The emitted ion would follow the electric field line, crashing into the Si target before reaching the sharp probe. Moving the probe would scan the electric field line, and the point of impact across the surface of the wafer. Alternatively, keep the ion source and probe stationary and move the wafer x-y.

[1] small meaning that the spread of the field lines is less than the desired feature size.

I'm not sure Si would allow E field lines like that unless it was already doped to a certain extent (at least without diving into matsci book :P).

But i was thinking along the same lines by maybe instead of the probe moving, one would move the wafer from one end to another and using an applied magnetic field lines to accelerate ions to the wafer as it moved.

What i'm picturing in my head right now is you have two metal coiled cylinders (inner and outer) with the space in between is where the wafer will move through. Now if i could only think of where the ions can be fired in order to follow the magnetic field lines inside between the cylinders to surface of the wafer (theres probably a better setup, but trying to figure out the direction of B and E fields to be able to do something like that in my head is too much for me atm).

I think what i'm getting at though is that it might be easier to get nm distances by moving the wafer through B field lines in x direction than moving an E field line x and y.

That's because they are talking about the pinnacle of chipmaking tech. There are many more companies that can make chips on a larger scale.

How much does one of these plants cost? It's said that they're astronomically expensive, but I haven't seen a dollar amount for building one.

TSMC Spent 9.3 billion on one of their plants back in 2010.


Though the numbers I've typically heard are around 3-4 Instagrams.

we could also look at the semiconductor capital equipment companies, which are just as concentrated and sometimes even more so. applied materials, lam research, tokyo-electron, kla-tencor, etc. iirc kla has over 60% share in the defect analysis equipment sector.

I don't believe it's a bad thing. Mostly it's a sign that there is a finite number of distinct microchip designs the global economy really needs. These microchips improve all the time.

Now, once there really is a monopoly problem, it's still possible for smaller chip makers to emerge with less efficient or powerful chips, if the market is desperate for "fresh blood".

This has very little to do with design. This is about fabrication. GF, TSMC are purely fabrication, and do little to no design work internally. The chance that any other company can emerge and compete with this group, at least with respect to silicon is zero. A new company would have to poach thousands of engineers, and raise billions. Most competitors have simply given up (TI, ST, etc).

The only possibility of more competition in the space is if an upstart is able to emerge when the next generation materials/processes emerge. Maybe carbon. Otherwise, expect the number of fabs to go one direction: down.

Only one planet produces the water and food in which our entire existence is dependant, but we don't take that very seriously. Four chip makers seem almost excessive in comparison.

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