Europe looks to secure chip supply after 'naive' past approach

Automotive Industry

Source: Automotive News Europe, 2021-05-05

Europe was naive to outsource so much of its semiconductor design and manufacturing in recent decades, a top government Official said ahead of unveiling more details around plans to double the region's chip production by 2030.

European Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton said it was possible to redress the imbalance, and the global chip shortage hitting automakers and electronics suppliers was evidence that now is the time to act.

"We want to come back to our former market share of production for the needs of our industry," said Breton, the former CEO of French IT giant Atos and France Telecom.

Europe's share of semiconductor manufacturing has dropped over the years because the region has been "too naive, too open," he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

On 5 May, the European Commission, the bloc's executive body, will unveil more details about a strategy announced in March 2021 to double production to at least 20% of the world's chips by 2030. It will involve creating an industry alliance of Europe's leading semiconductor companies and research centres as well as more than a dozen EU governments, Breton said. At least 22 countries have already signed a letter of intent.

The alliance of European players will have to decide how to boost the design and production of 20-nanometre to 10-nanometre chips, which are smaller and more powerful than most currently manufactured in Europe, Breton said, without offering a timeline. Advances in manufacturing are measured in nanometres, or billionths of a metre, with smaller and smaller transistors crammed onto silicon wafers with each new iteration.

In parallel, the EU will work on plans to produce the next generation of leading-edge chips by 2030. Officials are targeting production below 5-nanometres down to 2-nanometres, an ambitious goal not yet reached by industry leaders Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and South Korea's Samsung Electronics.

For years, Europe accounted for a major chunk of global semiconductor manufacturing. In 1990, capacity reached about 44% but it's now closer to 10%.

Taiwan, South Korea and Japan account for about 60% of production, according to Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association.

European chip designers including NXP Semiconductors and Infineon Technologies now outsource most production to TSMC and other foundry operators.

Europe's decline in consumer technology, such as the failure of Nokia and Ericsson's once-popular mobile phones, is partly to blame for the supply chain shift, according to Jan-Peter Kleinhans, Head of technology and geopolitics at think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung.

While Europe's auto industry is still strong, the sector has been one of the hardest hit by the global chip shortage. Ford said on 3 May it would halt production at its German plants for several weeks due to a lack of semiconductors, joining a growing list of manufacturers idling factories.

"We know that to go there, it will be better to do this with partners," Breton said of the ambitious 2-nanometre goal, referring to the strategy as "going to the moon."

Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, has backed the EU's plans. It's already expanding 7-nanometre production in Europe and is also considering building a state-of-the-art semiconductor foundry in the region. But the company has struggled to advance its manufacturing in recent years.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger also suggested the company would likely need big financial support from European governments to invest in the bloc's strategy.

An Intel Spokesman pointed to companies in Asia that get roughly 40% of the costs of building a new factory subsidised by the state. A new factory costs at least $10bn and it would take two of them in one location to take advantage of economies of scale, the Spokesman said.

It remains unclear how much money Europe is willing to spend to reclaim its chipmaking prowess. Still, around 19 Member States have already backed the commission's plans and have agreed to establish an investment instrument co-financed by the countries and participating companies.

At least 20% of the EU's €672.5bn ($808bn) recovery and resilience facility has also been allocated for digital priorities, though it's up to individual countries to decide how much to spend specifically on the semiconductor strategy.

"The EU has some semiconductor industry champions, but it faces fierce competition from other countries that view chip production as a national priority," Gelsinger wrote in the Financial Times, adding that those governments are providing generous incentives to attract semiconductor manufacturing.

"Europe must match this to stand a chance of competing," he said.

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