On December 6, TSMC held a ceremony for the first tool-in of its new Arizona fab. This event came after the foundry giant had publicized a series of overseas expansion projects. Within Taiwan, TSMC’s recent announcements have caused a stir in public opinion. Concerns have been raised about the possibility of a hollowing out of the island’s semiconductor industry due to a mass exodus of professionals involved in chip manufacturing.
TSMC’s Overseas Expansion Plan
TSMC actually embarked on the path to internationalize its business operations much earlier in 2015, when it made the announcement to build a fab in Nanjing, Mainland China. At that time, the chief reason behind this expansion project was that Huawei had become the second most important client next to Apple. Also, TSMC planned to have its 16nm node serve as the main manufacturing technology of the Nanjing fab. This decision was in line with the semiconductor technology export rules enforced by Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs. Specifically, domestic chipmakers are only allowed to deploy “n-1” technologies at overseas manufacturing sites. Despite being in compliance with all domestic laws and regulations, TSMC still attracted a lot of controversies with establishing a base of operation in Mainland China, and there were speculations that more advanced semiconductor technologies will be leaving Taiwan with the “westward expansion”.
Fast-forward to present day, China is not the only one that is focusing on the development of a homegrown semiconductor industry. After witnessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global supply chain, many other countries are reconsidering the importance of semiconductor supply in their own industries. From the US to Japan and European countries, governments have begun to offer various subsidies and market-based incentives in order to entice major semiconductor manufacturers such as TSMC to build fabs in their territories.
A detailed survey of TSMC’s overseas expansion activities from 2015 onwards finds that the construction of the Nanjing fab commenced in 2016 a year after the announcement of the project. The fab then celebrated the formal start of mass production with a ceremony in 2018. Two years later, in 2020, TSMC revealed the plan to build a 12-inch wafer fab that deploys advanced nodes in Arizona. Moving into 2021, the foundry giant unveiled two more expansion projects in Japan. The plan to open a “3D IC material R&D center” in Tsukuba (Ibaraki Prefecture) was announced first. Later in October of that same year, TSMC said it will set up a fab in Kumamoto.
Where Will TSMC Go After US?
Regarding the locations of TSMC’s fabs worldwide, TrendForce’s latest research reveals that for 12-inch wafer foundry, TSMC has four fabs in Taiwan, including including two upcoming greenfield projects respectively located in Hsinchu and Kaohsiung. Outside Taiwan, TSMC has one operational 12-inch wafer fabs in Mainland China and two more under construction in the US and Japan. Besides these existing and planned fabs, a close eye is also being kept on TSMC’s possible expansion into the EU states. Germany has long been rumored to be TSMC’s candidate for setting up a fab in Europe. However, Ireland has a lot of potential as well since Intel previously announced its intention to expand its existing manufacturing operation in this country. Currently, TSMC is internally assessing the feasibility of landing a project in Ireland.
Taiwan Still Has Advantages in Talents, Business Culture, and Complete Industry Ecosystem
Going back to the issue of whether TSMC’s overseas expansion activities will negatively affect Taiwan’s semiconductor industry by causing an outward migration of related professionals or a weakening of the industry’s competitive advantage. According to TrendForce analyst Joanne Chiao, the deglobalization trend is gradually emerging in the supply-demand dynamics of the semiconductor market. Based on the latest data, the geographical distribution of TSMC’s production capacity (that is calculated in thousands of 12-inch wafer equivalents per month) for 2022 is estimated as follows: 93% in Taiwan, about 6% in Mainland China, and 1% in the US. The short-term effects of TSMC’s overseas projects will thus be very limited as the majority share of the foundry’s production capacity is going to stay in Taiwan.
As for the effects on the competitiveness of the domestic semiconductor industry in the long run, Chiao believes that deglobalization will lead to a general rise in operating costs for foundries worldwide. This means that every foundry will be facing increasing pressure related to pricing regardless of where they put their fabs. On the other hand, Taiwan’s importance as the world’s main chip production base will diminish somewhat over time because of the deglobalization trend.
Nevertheless, the foundry industry depends on tight relations with clients as well as highly synchronized and meticulous services among all participants across the supply chain. This is where Taiwan shines because the island is home to a complete ecosystem for the foundry industry. All participants in this ecosystem advance together when it comes to upgrading technological capabilities or overcoming technological bottlenecks. Apart from these advantages, a system of management has been well established on the island for the various aspects of fab operation. As foundries keep their fabs running 24/7, they are constantly tested in manpower scheduling. Therefore, they have to rely on locally cultivated talents and local experience that have taken decades to amass. In other words, fabs in Taiwan are performing at the highest level because of the local business and work culture.
（Image credit: TSMC Linkedin）