In response to what seems to be insatiable demand for ICs, the world's biggest foundry signaled yet another increase in its expansion plans.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd (TSMC) once again plans a boost in capital expenditures. This new round calls for as much as $44 billion in 2022 to meet demand the company believes could grow by up to 20 percent during the next few years.
Chips used in high-performance computing (HPC) and smartphones, each accounting for about 40 percent of revenue during the fourth quarter of 2021, are driving demand for the world’s largest foundry. All application segments for which TSMC provides information, including automotive and IoT, posted growth during the period.
“We expect our capacity to remain tight throughout 2022,” TSMC CEO C.C. Wei said on a Jan. 13 conference call to announce quarterly results. “In 2022, we expect the supply chain to maintain a higher level of inventory as compared to the historical level, given the continued need to ensure supply security.”
Chip shortages that emerged around the same time as the Covid pandemic nearly two years ago are likely to persist this year as large populations stay at home to work and play games online. That trend has continued to crimp growth for car makers and other electronics manufacturers worldwide who failed to see the chip crunch coming.
TSMC aims to increase its 2022 capital expenditure by as much as 50 percent from $30 billion in 2021. At the same time, TSMC bumped up its expectation for gross margins over the next few years to 53 percent from the previous 50 percent.
TSMC is not just expanding capacity for advanced nodes like 5 nm and 3 nm, where its sole rival (at least for now) is Samsung. TSMC will increase legacy 28-nm production, where it competes with a range of other foundries such as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) of China, United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) of Taiwan, and GlobalFoundries, which has headquarters in the US.
“Mature nodes have more competition, but successive price hikes from weaker foundries have made TSMC better but cheaper again, and hence made TSMC the last supplier for customers to cut orders if the cycle turns,” Bernstein analyst Mark Li said in a report provided to EE Times.
TSMC’s strategy at mature nodes is to work closely with customers to develop specialty technologies, according to Wei. Industry trends like 5G, HPC and increased silicon content in electronic devices will drive demand, he said.
“We forecast 28 nm will be the sweet spot for our embedded memory applications. In support of our special technology strategies, we are expanding our 28-nm manufacturing capacity at sites in China, Japan and Taiwan.”
Still, some are concerned that a rapid buildup of capacity by TSMC and foundry rivals like Samsung and Intel may soon result in widespread overcapacity and plunging profits.
“A lot of the financial industry, we’re talking about some type of cycle peak or oversupply in 2022,” Goldman Sachs analyst Bruce Lu said on the conference call.
Even if there is a downturn in the making, it should not be very volatile for TSMC, according to Wei.
To hedge against a potential downturn, the company has been taking pre-payments from customers that range from Apple to Xilinx who want to secure chip supplies. In the past, some TSMC customers double-booked orders during supply shortages. Those inflated figures provided a rosy outlook that was out of line with reality.
In 2021, TSMC received $6.7 billion as pre-payments, and the company expects that number to increase this year.
Pre-payment is tempting, but it undermines the principle of the foundry model, said Bernstein analyst Li, once himself a TSMC engineer. TSMC’s pre-payments are less than 10 percent of its annual revenue, he noted. “Taking pre-payments deviates from the principle of ‘everyone’s foundry’ and poses a risk to the critical scale, diversity and efficiency advantage of the foundry model,” he said in the Bernstein report.
Some of TSMC’s increase in capital expenditures this year will go to new chip facilities in Japan and the United States. The company didn’t disclose how much of its $40 billion-plus budget for 2022 is earmarked for those projects.
The Japan facility, a joint venture with Sony and the Japanese government, is likely an exception. TSMC is still evaluating the possibility of building a branch foundry in Europe.
“We haven’t done a joint venture for many years, and we think this joint venture is a also a special case,” TSMC Chairman Mark Liu said. “Typically, every TSMC fab, no matter where it’s located, will serve customers from around the world. This Japan joint venture is also the same. However, in Japan, we have a very large customer who has a single technology.”
Liu didn’t disclose details on the Sony technology.
Concerns of a downturn were repeated by analysts on the conference call. The advanced nodes where TSMC and Samsung have carved out a niche for themselves may provide resilience against a chip slump.
“There is a cyclical risk, but highlight the risk is much lower than others. In the fourth quarter of 2021, half of (TSMC’s) revenue was from 7 nm and 5 nm, where competition is limited,” Bernstein’s Li said. “With 4 nm ramping, this portion will become more to protect TSMC from the cycle.”
This article was originally published on EE Times.
Alan Patterson has worked as an electronics journalist in Asia for most of his career. In addition to EE Times, he has been a reporter and an editor for Bloomberg News and Dow Jones Newswires. He has lived for more than 30 years in Hong Kong and Taipei and has covered tech companies in the greater China region during that time.