Owing to an uncontrolled spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has instituted Level 3 restrictions throughout the island. With employees from several tech companies testing positive for the virus, major foundries, including TSMC and VIS, are successively finding positive cases among their midst as well. Worries have therefore cropped up in the global semiconductor supply chain over whether the supply of chip can remain unaffected despite the infections in Taiwan.
Taking into account Taiwan’s share of foundry capacity within the global total, the aforementioned supply chain’s worries are not without merit. According to TrendForce’s investigations, Taiwanese foundries, including TSMC, UMC, VIS, and PSMC, collectively account for about 50% of the global foundry capacity, meaning about 50% of the global supply of chips is contingent on Taiwan.
However, TrendForce also finds that, despite the domestic spread of the pandemic, which forced various companies to institute WFH policies for their employees, most semiconductor fabs are operating without interruptions at the moment, indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to impact the production and supply of chips.
As well, both TSMC and VIS have immediately made public announcements stating that their operations remain unaffected by the positive cases. However, whether the pandemic can be sufficiently managed and whether it will hinder the supply of semiconductors going forward remains to be seen.
Now that the chip shortage has persisted for more than half a year, markets and industries are closely monitoring whether chip demand is as strong as expected, or whether the current shortage is a mere mirage caused by overbooked orders from clients in fear of insufficient components.
At any rate, analyzing the current chip shortage entails doing so on both the supply and the demand ends. First of all, with regards to the demand for automotive chips, which has been in the spotlight for the past two quarters, automakers first began suffering from a shortage of automotive chips last year. This took place because automotive electronics suppliers, which had historically maintained a relatively low inventory level, slashed their chip orders placed at foundries ahead of other foundry clients at the onset of the coronavirus crisis in early 2020.
Hence, once automotive demand saw a sudden upturn later on, these automotive electronics suppliers found themselves unable to place additional orders at foundries, whose production capacities had by this time become fully loaded. Automotive chips subsequently began experiencing a shortage as a result.
At the same time, demand for CIS, DDI, and PMICs skyrocketed owing to the global 5G rollout and to the spike in demand for PCs and TVs caused by the proliferation of WFH. Given that foundries had already been experiencing fully loaded capacities across their mature technologies required for fabricating these chips, most clients had no choice but to resort to upping their volume of chip orders in orders to ensure that they are allocated sufficient foundry capacities.
Brands’ order placement strategies
On the other hand, several brands of electronic devices have been overbooking their chips to mitigate the risk of the chip shortage that began last year as well as the increased shipping times. These brands span the notebook computer, TV, and smartphone industries.
Of these three industries, smartphone brands have been overbooking foundry capacities due to the aforementioned expectation of chip shortage and most smartphone brands’ ongoing attempt to seize market shares left in Huawei’s wake. It should be pointed out that, however, in response to lackluster sales during the May 1st Labor Day in China, most brands have now lowered their production targets.
Foundries, on the other hand, had already been experiencing fully loaded capacities due to high demand from various end devices. Hence, they were unable to reach the volume of orders that were overbooked by smartphone brands despite adjusting their product mixes and reallocating production capacities. As such, although smartphone brands have lowered their production targets, capacities across the foundry industry remain fully loaded.
“Brands are responding to the market situation by strategically procuring components. Even if they were to adjust their production targets, they could still adjust their purchases of raw materials and consumables. Actors in the supply chain are unlikely to rigorously examine the inventory levels of brands before any unexpected changes occur in either demand or material shortages”
Conversely, with regards to the notebook and TV industries, they had mostly experienced bullish demand in the past few quarters, meaning sales performances are mostly a non-issue. Their procurement efforts have thus been focused on taking stock of the supply of raw materials and consumables, and these efforts have been guided by a principle of stocking up on demand. This is in accordance with both the bullish sales and the expectations of the companies themselves.
Generally speaking, TV and notebook use the term of strategic stocking as an excuse to mitigate any doubts of rising inventory levels from market observers. For the supply chains of these industries, the current state of the market is primarily dictated by the demand side. Actors in the supply chain are unlikely to rigorously examine the inventory levels of brands before any unexpected changes occur in either demand or material shortages.
Taken together, the supply and demand situations of the notebook, smartphone, and TV markets, in addition to the capacity utilization rate of foundries, would seem to indicate that the inventory adjustments caused by overbooking is unlikely to taken place in the short run, contrary to the market’s fears. TrendForce currently expects the shortage of foundry capacities to persist at least until 1H22, only after which is the supply and demand situation in the semiconductor market like to gradually return to an equilibrium.
The stay-at-home economy brought about a soaring demand for TVs, which in turn resulted in a shortage of TV panels in 2H20, according to TrendForce. Also contributing to the bullish rebound of TV panel quotes last year was the fact that most panel manufacturers rapidly decreased their supply of TV panels around this time.
After the upturn of panel quotes kicked off in late 2Q20 and came to a temporary slowdown at the end of the year, this upward momentum once again intensified in mid 1Q21 without warning, and clients on the purchasing end were caught off guard as a result.
TV brands are now at the mercy of panel suppliers since panels are an irreplaceable component in the production of TV sets. Being unable to effectively address the shortage and price hike of TV panels during the current surge in TV sales, TV brands have no choice but to react by buying up TV panels as they become available, thereby further driving up prices of TV panels.
Upward trajectory of TV panel quotes will likely taper in 3Q21 after TV brands successfully retool their procurement strategies.
The movement of prices in the panel market suggests that TV panel quotes will most likely peak at the end of 2Q21, plateau throughout 3Q21, and face downward pressure caused by an expected easing of demand for TVs in 4Q21. Although fourth quarters have traditionally been peak seasons for TV sales, TrendForce expects such major seasonal discounts as Black Friday sales to be cancelled this year in light of persistently high panel prices. TV sales in 4Q21 are therefore expected to be relatively muted as well.
On the other hand, as more and more of the general public receive vaccines, recreational activities, at least in developed countries such as the US, are expected to gradually move from the confines of indoor environments to the great outdoors.
Should this transition take place, TV brands and distributors alike will conservatize their outlooks of TV sales and of safe inventory levels, respectively, with brands lowering their panel procurement and distributors performing appropriate inventory adjustments. TrendForce analysts expect that TV panel quotes will enter a bearish trend in 4Q21 and gradually return to a cyclical downturn in 1H22.
The “new normal” in the post-pandemic era has seen the meteoric rise of high-speed and high-bandwidth 5G applications, which subsequently brought about a corresponding increase in cloud services demand. As such, the global server shipment for 2021 will likely reach 13.6 million units, a 5.4% increase YoY. As commercial opportunities in white-box servers begin to emerge, Taiwanese ODMs, including Quanta, Wiwynn, and Foxconn are likely to benefit.
The prevailing business model of the server supply chain involves having the ODM responsible for the design, hardware installation, and assembly processes, after which servers are delivered to server brands (such as HPE, Dell, Inspur, and Lenovo), which then sell the servers to end-clients. In contrast, a new business model has recently started to emerge; this business model involves having server ODMs responsible for manufacturing specific and customized server hardware, available directly for purchase by such end-clients as cloud service providers, thereby bypassing brands as the middlemen.
With regards to market share, Foxconn accounts for nearly half of the total server demand from Microsoft Azure and from AWS, while Quanta accounts for about 60-65% of Facebook’s server demand.
According to TrendForce’s investigations, ODMs including Quanta, Inventec, Foxconn, Wiwynn, and QCT have all received server orders from clients in the cloud services sector in 1H21. In particular, both Quanta and Inventec received orders from Microsoft Azure, AWS, Facebook, and Google Cloud. With regards to market share, Foxconn accounts for nearly half of the total server demand from Microsoft Azure and from AWS, while Quanta accounts for about 60-65% of Facebook’s server demand, in turn giving Foxconn and Quanta the lion’s shares in the ODM market.
The aforementioned Taiwanese ODMs have been aggressive in growing their presence in the private industrial 5G network and edge computing markets, with Quanta subsidiary QCT being a good case in point as an ODM that supplies servers to both telecom operators and private industrial networks for these clients’ respective 5G infrastructures build-outs.
More specifically, QCT stated the following in a press release dated Jan. 4, 2021:
“Quanta Cloud Technology (QCT), a global data center solution provider, independently developed Taiwan’s first 5G standalone (SA) core network, which recently passed interoperability and performance verifications for 5G Open Network Lab operated by Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). The core network was successfully connected to partner radio access networks (RAN) and third-party user equipment, realizing end-to-end 5G signal transmission from edge to core and achieving significant acceleration in both uplink and downlink speeds.”
In response to the edge computing demand generated by global 5G commercialization efforts, Wiwynn recently released the EP100 server, which is a 5G edge computing solution compliant with the OCP openEDGE specification. Developed in collaboration with U.S.-based 5G software solutions provider Radisys, the EP100 can function as an O-DU or an O-CU depending on the various 5G RAN needs of telecom operators.
Furthermore, Wiwynn is continuing to develop the next generation of edge computing servers targeted at the enterprise networking and edge computing segments.
Foxconn, on the other hand, has been focusing on developing vertical solutions for private industrial 5G networks. Foxconn’s hardware infrastructure offerings include edge computing servers, TSN network switches, and gateways. The company also offers a slew of software solutions such as data management platforms and other apps, hosted by Asia Pacific Telecom. Last but not least, Foxconn recently announced an additional US$35.6 million investment in its Wisconsin project; this injection of capital will make the company well equipped to meet the demand for servers as well as 5G O-RAN and other telecom equipment.
A small subtropical island off the coast of southeast China, Taiwan is subject to certain cyclical weather changes throughout the year, the most notorious of which is its yearly typhoons that at different times benefit its agricultural industry and cause various natural disasters.
Much like everything else that happened in 2020, last year marked a stark exception for the island’s climate, which saw no typhoons, resulting in a relatively dry year. Compounding the issue is the current season of low precipitation. Taken together, these factors have since resulted in a significant drought that required an all-hands-on-deck approach from the government, such as rationing water on specific weekdays and advising industries to cut down on water consumption.
Meanwhile, a similar drought has been taking place in the global semiconductor world. As the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last year brought fundamental changes to the way we work, study, and live, so too has the general public’s consumption of electronic devices – and, in turn, the worldwide demand for chips used in these devices – risen.
If there are bumps in the road to Taiwanese foundries’ continued dominance, lack of rain certainly isn’t one.
Seeing as how Taiwan is the central hub of the world’s advanced semiconductor technologies, acts as home to industry leader TSMC (which is the exclusive supplier of Apple’s M1 processors), and accounts for more than half of the world’s chip manufacturing capacity, industries and media alike are fearing that the domestic drought will exacerbate the current global chip shortage, since chip fabrication processes require enormous amounts of clean water.
However, true to its market leadership, the Taiwanese semiconductor industry has so far remained unaffected, at least on the supply side, by the water shortage. This is in part due to the fact that domestic foundries (i.e., chip manufacturers) have previously completed numerous drills related to worst-case scenarios of long droughts and are accordingly well prepared in these extenuating circumstances. Furthermore, the foundries also signed contracts with utility companies to ensure an ample supply of water to keep fabs (semiconductor fabrication plants) running via water tank trucks.
TrendForce therefore expects domestic foundry operations to continue unabated for the time being. Case in point, on April 15, TSMC announced an increased capital expenditure of US$30 billion for 2021. The foundry is also actively expanding its production capacity of mature technology processes in response to the growing demand from clients worldwide.
In the world of semiconductors, advancements in process technologies occupy merely one part of the equation when it comes to long-term success. Other requirements pertain to governmental, infrastructural, climate, procedural, and talent-related dimensions, just to name a few.
While Taiwanese foundries look for a way out of the ongoing drought, they are not only acing these requirements in spades, but also staying in the spotlight of the electronics supply chain in light of geopolitical tensions, oligopolistic market trends, and the persistent global health crisis. If there are bumps in the road to Taiwanese foundries’ continued dominance, lack of rain certainly isn’t one.