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Delivery bottlenecks for semiconductorsThe power of microchips

At the end of January in the federal press conference. The spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Economics commented on an unusual process: "First of all, it is correct that there are currently very high levels of capacity utilization at Asian manufacturers of semiconductor productions."

Media reports that Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier from the CDU wrote a letter to the Taiwanese government because of acute delivery bottlenecks in microchips for the auto industry. That raises questions - not only because the Federal Republic of Germany does not recognize Taiwan as a state. The spokeswoman for the economics minister confirmed a contact, albeit only with brief words.

"That is why we are monitoring the situation in the market very closely and are in contact with the automotive industry, but also with the Taiwanese Ministry of Economic Affairs."

Nothing works in modern cars without chips

A little later, Taiwan promised the automotive industry a remedy. Economy Minister Wang Mei-hua said several leading chip manufacturers are ready to expand their capacities as much as possible. But that will take time. She also made the promise to the United States. Because the chip shortage is a global problem.

Auto factories all over the world are temporarily shut down at the beginning of the year. Not only Germany is suddenly getting involved in the semiconductor market. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced: "The government is currently identifying potential bottlenecks in the supply chain and is actively working with key industry representatives and trading partners to find a solution."

But why are the small microchips so important that they paralyze entire production lines?

"So the chips that we are currently missing are primarily complex chips for controlling braking systems, engine control units and other things. That means, in particular, powerful microcontrollers," says Joachim Damasky, technical director at the Association of the Automotive Industry.

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Nothing works in modern cars without such microcontrollers and other semiconductor chips. The miniature circuits can be designed and produced for various functions.

The complicated production takes time

Michael Töpper from the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin: "These driver assistance systems are actually a nice example. Your car parks automatically. Your cruise control, which also controls the distance. That means that you always have an environment detection somewhere: some sensor has been detected what - and then you need data processing, a controller. Because then he has to make a decision, according to the motto: Now brake! In other words, the car is braked automatically and the steering wheel is automatically moved when parking is automatic. And that is exactly what these microcontrollers are, of course. "

"You have to imagine that a car today has more software code than an airplane," adds the car analyst Arndt Ellinghorst from Bernstein Research in London. "The demands are extremely high, because everything that happens in the car is of course highly relevant to safety. If something doesn't work, people can die. And so everything that has to do with semiconductors, with information in the vehicle, is of course extremely relevant. And if something does not work if the parts are missing in one place or another, then the cars cannot be produced. "

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Ellinghorst estimates that two to four million cars worldwide cannot be built in the first half of the year because microchips are missing.

Because the complicated production cannot be ramped up from one day to the next. Ultra-thin silicon disks, so-called wafers, are processed in more than 1,000 process steps in such a way that tiny structures are created on them.

Fraunhofer researcher Michael Töpper: "A wafer like this has a throughput time of something between six weeks and three months in the semiconductor factory. That is how long it takes until the silicon wafer is actually a bare wafer, a single crystal, through production and then actually a finished product Chip is made. "

The silicon is coated several times and exposed with special stencils, the smallest areas are etched and bombarded with ions. Depending on the diameter of the disk and the size of the chips, a few dozen to several thousand chips are created on a wafer.

All of this happens in so-called clean rooms: special factories with stable temperature and humidity, in which the air is almost dust-free. Because even the smallest particles could torpedo production: The structures on the finished chips are tiny, they are measured in nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

Delivery problems have various reasons

Despite their small size, microchips cannot be heaped up, explains Reinhard Ploss, CEO of the chip manufacturer Infineon, at the company's quarterly press conference at the beginning of February: "Semiconductors - even if you can hardly believe it - have an expiration date Do not use quality considerations any further. That is why we do not keep endless stocks in stock. "

So customers have to order early in order to be delivered on time. This system has reached its limits in the past few months. The reasons are supply bottlenecks at raw material suppliers, geopolitical tensions between China and the USA and a market for miniature computers distorted by the corona pandemic.

Depending on Chinese silicon production

Starting with the most important raw material for microchips, silicon. The semi-metal is very common on earth. Of around eight million tons worldwide, more than five million tons were produced in China in 2020. To do this, quartz is melted at high temperatures, an extremely energy-intensive process. And this is where the problems start, explains Jost Wübbeke, director of the analysis and consulting company Sinolytics, which specializes in China: "There were problems with the power supply, especially due to rising electricity prices, and many melters have shut down production, so to speak. In this case, it just shows so this dependence on the Chinese silicon production in a very clear way. "

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While raw materials were becoming scarcer, the corona pandemic upset the demand for chips. Wübbeke sees this as the main cause of the current deficiency. "The point was that the demand for automobiles fell relatively sharply during the crisis. For the chip manufacturers, that meant they needed other customers first. Then the focus was more on 'consumer electronics' Electronics sector. And actually drives quite well with it now. "

Because the electronics companies are good customers. Apple alone asks as many chips as the entire automotive industry. The otherwise so powerful automotive industry therefore has no priority in the microchip industry, explains auto analyst Arndt Ellinghorst: "The automotive industry purchases around twelve to 13 percent of all semiconductors that are produced in the chip industry. This means that the automotive industry plays a role in the Semiconductor industry. But a relatively small role. That is why the automaker's power of action is of course also limited. "

There is no German and no European among the chip giants

In the rarest of cases, these purchase microchips directly. You order electronic components from suppliers such as Bosch, Continental or ZF Friedrichshafen. These in turn only partially build the required chips themselves. In most cases, they buy chips from semiconductor companies such as Infineon, ST-Microelectronics, NXP or Nvidia. These chip companies, in turn, pass on parts of their orders or even all orders to contract manufacturers, so-called foundries.

There are only a handful of these foundries around the world. This is mainly due to the production costs, explains Joachim Damasky from the VDA automotive association: "You just have to see that there has been a shift in recent years to the effect that the semiconductor manufacturers are making the high investment costs necessary to build a production facility that costs billions of euros to be set up somewhere for certain processors, can only be carried if they can be used very highly. And these contract manufacturers can do that much better. "

The relationship between the cost of manufacturing microchips and their market price is so unfavorable that many small factories are not worthwhile. This is how real chip giants emerged in the background. "And the problem is that there is no German and actually no European either."

The world's leading foundry company is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company - TSMC for short. The second largest manufacturer in terms of sales is by some distance the foundry subsidiary of the South Korean Samsung group. In third place is Globalfoundries, which operates a factory in Dresden but is based in California and is owned by an investment company from Abu Dhabi.

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The US-China trade war has increased concentration. Foundries in China were slowed down, and orders were placed with factories outside the People's Republic. Another reason for the current shortage.

Making supply chains more independent through European cooperation

The complex causes for this cannot be remedied ad hoc. But they are obviously making the industry pensive, as the example of Volkswagen shows. A company spokesman announced: VW is now considering, among other things, entering into direct contractual relationships with semiconductor suppliers.

Joachim Damasky from the car lobbying association VDA goes one step further: "Of course, geopolitically we as Europeans have to think about the extent to which we can make our supply chains a bit more independent."

There are similar considerations at the political level: As early as 2017, Germany, together with three other EU countries, initiated a so-called "important project of common European interest" for microelectronics. For these projects, the EU allows exceptions to its state aid rules, so it is allowed to subsidize more than usual. The funds have been flowing since 2019. Germany has estimated one billion euros by 2023. For their part, the sponsored companies are investing 2.6 billion euros in Germany. And the next subsidy projects are already in sight.

Johannes Bahrke, spokesman for the EU Commission for issues relating to the digital economy: "19 EU countries - including Germany - have committed themselves in a joint declaration to work more closely together on processors and semiconductor technology. The EU Commission, for its part, is working on the establishment of a European alliance for microelectronics and processors. "

An idea that EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton has been pursuing for some time. His idea is to raise 20 to 30 billion euros through subsidies and private investments. The renewed cooperation between several European countries also promises contributions of this magnitude. The exact amount has not yet been determined.

At a conference of several newspaper publishers, Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier recently announced: "That will run into billions. I assume that once all states have set their amounts and then the companies apply for funding and say what they are willing to accept invest that we will get together a well-double-digit amount. "

Chip factories in Europe are unrealistic in the next few years

The aim of the efforts is not only to build up production capacities, but also to catch up with technology. The smaller the structures on a chip, the sooner they can achieve great computing power with limited energy consumption. This is relevant, for example, with large amounts of data or artificial intelligence.

Structures of five nanometers are currently considered the top standard. Michael Töpper from the Fraunhofer Institute estimates: "If you build such a new, 5-nanometer fab today, you calculate, well, around 15 billion euros or US dollars. And that is sums of money, it can't everyone can keep up. "

That is why not everyone in the industry is convinced that the subsidies will be enough to make Europe technologically independent.

The head of the automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen, for example, Wolf-Henning Scheider, dampens the economics minister's euphoria: "It is definitely welcome when we get fabs, that is chip factories, to Germany, to Europe. And I think that is also possible for standard microprocessors. In the case of high-performance computers, however, we are so far behind - there is currently not a single European company that comes even remotely in the direction of the pioneers here in the world - I see this as absolutely unrealistic over the next few years, that we get there. "

As part of an overall digital strategy, it is still conceivable to take the risk. But that, believes the industrialist, will probably take decades.

European corporations with future technology - sold to Asia

Meanwhile, Asian chip manufacturers and suppliers are going on a shopping spree in Europe. The Japanese chip manufacturer Renesas recently announced that it would swallow the German-British concern Dialog Semiconductor. Robert Van der Horst, a technology analyst at Warburg Bank, explains: "Dialog's chips control the energy or the current within smartphones. Every component in a smartphone sometimes needs a lot of energy. sometimes none at all, sometimes less. And the chips from Dialog make it possible to optimize and control that and thus, if you will, increase the runtime of a battery. "

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So technology with a future - which is now being sold to Japan. Shareholders and regulators have yet to approve the deal. Since the company is based in London, the British government will probably decide.

The situation is different in the case of the second major takeover in the German chip market: Siltronic, a manufacturer of wafers from Munich, is the only significant European supplier of the thin silicon wafers. In the future, at least 57 percent will belong to the competitor Globalwafers from Taiwan.

Takeovers From Asia - A Cause For The Government To Review?

The Bundeskartellamt has already approved the partial takeover. The worldwide investigations into buyers of wafers did not result in any sweeping concerns in terms of competition, the authority said. However, it is not responsible for assessing, for example, according to the requirements of foreign trade law.

The foreign trade law, which has been tightened several times, is the responsibility of the Federal Minister of Economics. He can intervene in takeovers if they are likely to affect public order or security. Effects on EU programs are also being examined.

Does the ministry see any reason for this examination in the case of Siltronic? A spokeswoman left this question from Deutschlandfunk unanswered: "As you probably know, we cannot comment on any test procedures, which means I can neither confirm nor deny it. I also cannot say whether we are striving for something like this. It was our goal never and it is not to generally no longer allow takeovers, that is not at all compatible with the fact that we are a very open and free business location and want to stay that way. "

Since it is only about a partial takeover, this is not necessarily a mistake, says Fraunhofer researcher Michael Töpper. With a view to the current situation, however, he qualifies: "But the raw material shouldn't actually be completely outsourced. Because then at some point the German semiconductor industry will be there and will have no wafers when everything is checked. Because actually the wafers are just like crude oil used to be for the chemical industry. You just need them, these disks. "

The management of Siltronic is behind the planned merger.In addition, an agreement has been reached with Globalwafers on a guarantee for the German locations and protection against dismissal until the end of 2024. If the federal government steps in, it has the company against it. If it does not, Taiwan's preeminent position in the microchip industry will be further strengthened.

The world of microchips becomes the arena for world politics

Meanwhile, China, classified by the EU as a strategic rival, is also trying to reduce its dependence on foreign chip technology. Triggered by the US decoupling tendencies, a change in strategy was recently observed, according to China analyst Jost Wübbeke. Instead of using the watering can, funding is targeted where the country is dependent on US technology.

“The largest Chinese chip manufacturer then gets a relatively large amount of money from the Chinese government in order to build a fancy plant in Shanghai. And on the other hand, you have other semiconductor companies that are then no longer supported Pay off that, of course. And China is also struggling with tough conditions and, of course, some unfair industrial policy practices, of course you shouldn't forget that. "

The small world of microchips has become the arena for great world politics. And Europe, which is heavily dependent on its auto industry, is right in the middle of it. The availability of chips is becoming more and more important, predicts the automotive expert Arndt Ellinghorst: "You have to invest much more in these technologies - this applies to all tech areas of the automotive industry - in Europe. We need the capacities to ensure that the automotive industry can deliver . And we have to reduce the extreme dependency on Asian supply chains. Otherwise, what has come up now with the semiconductor issue will occur again to a much greater extent in the future. "