The Semiconductor Shortage Has Come for the Auto Industry

The Semiconductor Shortage Has Come for the Auto Industry

The ongoing semiconductor shortage isn’t just hitting big-name tech companies like AMD, Intel, and Nvidia. According to multiple automotive manufacturers, the general manufacturing problems hitting the industry are now meaningfully slowing vehicle production.

“This is absolutely an industry issue,” Toyota spokesman Scott Vazin told the AP. “We are evaluating the supply constraint of semiconductors and developing countermeasures to minimize the impact to production.”

This is separate from the COVID-related issues that caused car manufacturers to idle facilities throughout 2020, and it’s creating constraints on companies as they attempt to bring factories back online. Toyota has slowed production on the Tundra, Ford pulled in some planned downtime for its Louisville facility, Fiat Chrysler has temporarily closed some factories, and Volkswagen has announced it’s facing component shortages and may slow production for this reason. Nissan hasn’t seen problems in the US, but its Japanese production has been slowed.

The problem appears to be timing. As demand dropped off from the auto industry, foundries pivoted to assign newly freed-up capacity to other companies. Now, with car sales picking up more quickly than anticipated, manufacturers want to start building more product again — and the semiconductor industry is still running red-hot. In some cases, the automakers are slowing production of slower-selling vehicles and diverting more chips to higher-end vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs. This implies the epidemic may accelerate the ongoing US shift towards SUVs and away from passenger sedans.

One major question out of all this is how the semiconductor industry may change following 2020. Modern factories and foundries have spent decades emphasizing lean, just-in-time manufacturing, and the result has been a supply chain that’s not particularly well-suited to absorbing sudden surges in demand. Part of the problem with building resiliency into the semiconductor manufacturing chain is that foundries typically have high fixed costs, due to the need to keep the plant in peak operating condition whether you’re actually manufacturing anything in the facility or not. There have been reports that the production delays hitting most high-end consumer equipment are being caused by a shortage in ABF (Ajinmoto Build-up Film), a resin used in producing microprocessors. The situation in 2020 is the macro-scale, industry-wide version of what happened to the hard drive industry during the Thailand floods nearly a decade ago. Back then, multiple companies were unable to ship HDDs because ball bearings suddenly became very difficult to source.

The Semiconductor Shortage Has Come for the Auto Industry

Part of the reason why the COVID-19 shortages are kicking everyone in the teeth is that the market for 200mm hardware was under pressure, even before the pandemic. A significant percentage of IoT, automotive, 5G, and self-driving silicon is built on older 200mm wafers, older process nodes, or both. Instead of drying up as was originally expected, 200mm demand has actually increased in recent years. COVID-19 put additional pressure on those production lines at the same time it put pressure on everyone else’s production facilities as well.

It’s going to be well into 2021 before we see these shortages settle down, and honestly, it might take until 2022. One of the problems with the semiconductor industry is that it cannot pivot to address short-term market shocks. Even if GlobalFoundries had empty 7nm lines, there’s no way to quickly port products from TSMC or Samsung to use them. Even if TSMC had broken ground on a massive new foundry the day the pandemic was found in China, it’d be another few years before the factory was ready to ship hardware. In other contexts, we might argue that the pandemic had highlighted the problem of relying on just 1-2 foundries, but the truth is, companies have been driven away from the IDM model because of inexorably rising manufacturing costs, while foundries have been pushed off the leading edge for the exact same reason. Having reserve capacity at Foundry B does no good if it takes 6-12 months to port a design to the different production method.

The 200mm market is going to remain tight for months, if not the next several years, and while the automotive market will probably recover as the computing market cools off, it won’t be surprising if shortages last beyond March – April 2021.

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