Indeed, TSMC and its South Korean rival Samsung have the only foundries in the world capable of making the most advanced 5-nanometer chips, and TSMC is expected to start the next generation of 3-nanometer chips in 2022. Plus chip transistors are small, the more brain power you can put into them. China’s largest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, isn’t even close. It mainly competes at 28 nanometers and is just starting to produce 14 nanometer chips.
I recently spent time in Silicon Valley asking American chip designers what TSMC sauce secret is that China can’t replicate.
Their short answer: confidence.
TSMC is a semiconductor foundry, which means it makes the chips designed by many different companies, especially Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, and even Intel. Over the years, TSMC has built an incredible ecosystem of trusted partners who share their intellectual property with TSMC to create their proprietary chips. At the same time, major tooling companies like America’s Applied Materials and Netherlands ASML are happy to sell their best chipmaking tools to TSMC. This ensures that the company is always at the forefront of materials science and lithography that go into the construction and etching of the base of each semiconductor.
And because it is the leading chip supplier for Apple products, TSMC is constantly pushed to push beyond innovation boundaries to accommodate Apple’s short and uninterrupted product cycles for new phones and iPads. This forces the entire TSMC ecosystem to improve more and more, faster and faster. As a result, TSMC’s costs keep dropping, the value of its ecosystem keeps growing, and the number of people who can join and benefit from it keeps growing.
“TSMC has always acted like a start-up – she was driven – and she always synthesized everyone’s best,” explained Steve Blank, a semiconductor innovator who leads a Stanford course on the geopolitics of advanced technologies. Intel, the leading chipmaker in the United States, has sort of gone astray, doing everything on its own and for itself, Blank added. “So there weren’t any customers pushing him, because Intel was his own customer, and as a result, he got complacent.” Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new CEO, has started to turn the tide.
I used to worry that Xi’s big idea – “Made in China 2025”, his plan to dominate all new technologies of the 21st century – would leave the West in the dust. But I worry a little less now. I have great respect for China’s manufacturing prowess. Its local chip industry is still good enough to do a lot of serious innovation, supercomputing, and machine learning.