Like the steam engine, semiconductors (often referred to as ‘integrated circuits’ or ‘(micro)chips’) are one of the few ‘general purpose technologies’ – drastic innovations that have opened up whole eras of technical progress and economic growth. Chips have enabled the development of information technologies and the ongoing digital transition. The three main categories of semiconductors are: logic chips – the ‘brains’ of electronic devices, executing complex computing operations; memory chips, storing information; and discrete, analog and other chips (DAO), such as voltage regulators or optical sensors. Advances in chip manufacturing process technology are typically described as ‘nodes’ – referring to the size in nanometres (nm) of the transistor gates (the key components of chips). The most advanced chips are based on the smallest nodes (below 10 nm) and consist of tens of billions of transistors. There are usually multiple semiconductors implanted on the printed circuit board of any electronic device. Used in an impressive range of products, from computers to medical devices, 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) systems, and security and defence devices, chips have become ubiquitous. They determine the characteristics of the products in which they are embedded, including their energy performance and security features.
The manufacturing of chips is highly complex. It involves three main steps: chip design; production (in ‘foundries’ or ‘fabs’), the most capital-intensive stage (a fab for advanced chips costs around US$20 billion); and final assembly, testing and packaging, the most labour-intensive stage. The supply chain also relies on around 300 inputs, such as ultra-pure silicon wafers, gases and chemicals, as well as on more than 50 classes of high-tech manufacturing equipment. In total, the production of a chip involves more than 1 000 steps, crossing international borders 70 times before reaching an end customer (Figure 1). A large semiconductor firm may rely on as many as 16 000 suppliers worldwide. The global supply chain is characterised by geographic specialisation and deep interdependencies. It comprises more than 50 choke points – steps where one region holds more than 65 % of the global market share. These features make the supply chain vulnerable to disruptions caused by natural disasters, accidents, infrastructure failures, cyber-attacks and geopolitical tensions. A closer look at Figure 2 reveals that 92 % of the world’s fabrication capacity for cutting-edge chips is based in Taiwan, while only four of the world’s top 35 semiconductor companies are based in Europe.