what TSMC is
In the early days of semiconductors, chip-making firms tended to be vertically integrated, meaning the companies that designed semiconductors also manufactured them in their own plants.
That changed as the semiconductor industry began to expand rapidly in the early 1990s, for several related reasons:
–chip designs became progressively more specialized and complex, putting increased focus on the design process
–the cost of building chip fabrication plants to manufacture newer, higher-specification, designs rose exponentially, putting them out of reach for all but the biggest firms, and
–TSMC opened in 1987 as a third-party manufacturer, allowing dedicated design shops to set up on their own and still be able to have their designs fabricated. The design business, something at which Americans have excelled, has flowered since.
Today, TSMC is the most advanced chip manufacturer in the world, and by far the best third-party fabricator, matched only by Samsung, an integrated firm, and maybe Intel.
semiconductor equipment makers
Today’s semiconductor fabs are extremely expensive. TSMC has just agreed to build a new fab in Arizona, for example. The cost: $12 billion. (More on this in the accompanying post) The equipment inside, the most advanced pieces of which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, comes from a small number of specialized machinery firms, which are located mostly in the US, Japan or the EU. Because of the complexity of semiconductor manufacturing and the expense and long lead times involved in developing and testing new equipment, there tend to be very close cooperative research and development relationships between the fabs and their equipment manufacturers.
foundries are the future…
…absent some revolutionary change in computer technology. A decade ago, when I was more up-to-date on semiconductors, a state-of-the-art fab cost about $4 billion. Operated efficiently, it would churn out, say, $7 billion worth of output. Both figures are out of reach for most firms. Hiring a trusted third party to manufacture your designs is the easiest way to go. Although the ratio of sales to assets has shrunk since I was better informed, the absolute numbers have risen a lot.