One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is a global shortage of the microchips that are essential to electronic devices. The factories that make these chips had to shut down for some of the pandemic, and are struggling to cope with an increase in demand. Some products could be delayed by months.
It’s too early to know how the shortage will affect the industry in the long term, but the pandemic has focused attention on some key research questions — including how to make the manufacturing process more resilient to shocks and emergencies.
One well-known problem is that microchips are designed in just a handful of companies, including Samsung in South Korea and Intel, NVIDIA and Qualcomm in California. But not all these companies make the chips. Some do; others outsource the work to third parties. And around 80% of the chips are made in Asia (Nature Electron. 4, 317; 2021). The biggest manufacturer is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in Hsinchu, which is responsible for 28% of global capacity using current fabrication methods. Although this concentration has undoubtedly been of great benefit to the region, it has also contributed to the current restriction of supplies.
Signs of change are starting to emerge. China, the United States and some European countries are increasing investments in microchip research and development. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and other big US technology corporations are doing the same, with investments estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Spreading capability through more companies — and to more low- and middle-income countries — will help to make the industry more resilient.