As aerospace engineers, we pride ourselves on making some awe-inspiring stuff, giant rockets taller than skyscrapers, aircraft that are as big as a football field, and if, we fail explosions that can take down the entire city block. But after graduating as an aerospace engineer, I somehow started working at a company that believes in “Changing the world, one nanometer at a time.” making machines that go kaput (minus the spectacular explosion) if so much as a spec of dust enters it. So like any other sane person, I was questioning my life choices. Trying to understand what is it that I really do? and how does it fit into the big picture? What I found was more mind-blowing than a 1000 pound JDAM and maybe even the driving force behind it.
Not so long ago, the words wafers and chips had the same meaning for me as they did for most humans, I ate them as snacks. But apparently, they also form the backbone of the tech industry. A wafer is a disc of silicon on which chips are printed, and silicon chips are the things that power all our hi-tech devices and lifestyle. While most of us are customers of the chip consumers, we know very little about the companies that enable their design and manufacturing. For example, did you know that both the memory card and RAM of your iPhone and MacBooks are made by Samsung? Or Intel is struggling to manufacture its next generation of chips, which perhaps will be manufactured by a little-known company called TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company). Or maybe that TSMC is reliant on another little-known company called ASML (It is just ASML) to manufacture the machines that can help it manufacture the next generation of chips, confused? Let us get to the basics first.
Our hi-tech world can be classified into four main categories, chip consumers, designers, foundries, and manufacturers. We are all aware of the consumers we consume from the consumers of the hi-tech world. All the fancy ML/AI and stuff like that originate here but are powered by the companies in the other three categories. Enter the chip designers, these are the companies that design the chips that enable the consumers to run all their fancy codes, stuffing in as many transistors as they can inside the chip. However, the designers mostly create computer models of the chips and require the foundries and manufacture to bring them to life. Enter the two least known categories of the hi-tech world, which is run by a symbiotic relationship between two companies TSMC and ASML, situated in two corners of the world. Headquartered in cities with less than 500,000 (Hsinchu) and 250,000 (Eindhoven) people respectively, these two companies together control/influence more than 50% of the world’s chip-making industry, and if not for the chip shortage and trade war, we probably would have never heard of them. But how do these two companies do that? Enter the sci-fi-like technology that goes behind these machines.
We have all heard of Moore’s law, but in order to achieve that target, the transistors on a chip need to keep getting smaller and smaller. At present we have reached a level where the transistors are only a few times the size of a silicon atom and it’s getting nearly impossible to shrink them to a smaller size. While finding a way to shrink them further is a problem for another day, manufacturing the present generation of cutting-edge chips is a completely different ball game on its own. Enter ASML and TSMC, with their chip-making expertise and this new way of producing those chips called EUV Lithography. How crazy is this chip-making thing, think about high-powered laser shooting through tin droplets creating plasma traveling through a vacuum all to print a tiny dot (transistor) on a silicon disc. Machines that weigh tonnes and are meters wide but everything in them is calculated to the seventh decimal place and accurate to the millimeter (or more). Built using technology that can put rocket science to shame and in a facility that is 10,000 times cleaner than the ambient atmosphere. Technology that is so critical, the US government is using all its muscles sanctioning its allies and preventing them from selling these machines to the Chinese. Can I give you more details about how the machine works? Perhaps, but then I would have to kill you 😉. So, we will be ending this section with a cut section of the ASML EUV NXE 3X00 series of machines and a picture of a TSMC fab with these machines, you can reach out if you have questions. But for now, we will be zooming out of the tech and machines to understand the geopolitical influence these chips have.
In the past century, we have had quite a few wars for oil, but things are going electric now. As result, we need to find new things to fight about. Enter the saying “data is the new oil” and if that’s true, then these chips are the oil rigs, and the refineries. Are you getting a sense of how important these chips are? They are everywhere in everything, controlling and often defining how this hi-tech world operates. So it is understandable why major world powers want to own and control the process of chip manufacturing.
Traditionally the world was roughly divided into three blocks, chip designers and consumers based out of the US, the chip manufacturers and foundries based in Taiwan and South Korea, and the manufacturers of the chip-making equipment in Europe. It is an incredibly complicated supply chain, and I will need to do a Ph.D. to understand and explain it. But let us say that from design to being put in your cell phone, the chip would have traveled to more countries than most of us ever would. In a rational world, it would be a remarkable example of globalization. But in today’s world, it shows the dependencies countries and potential adversaries have on each other. Ever wondered why America is so hell-bent on protecting Taiwan? Sending their destroyers, and aircraft carriers through Taiwan straight. Selling Taiwan $5 billion worth of cutting-edge defense equipment in 2020 alone . Sure, there are talks about protecting freedom and democracy, but from Afganistan, Iraq, and Syria we know it’s not a key consideration in the decision-making process. It is about securing supplies of the chips. Americans love chips, and so do the rest of the world. The pandemic and worsening relation between the US and China has further escalated the inevitable, and countries are rushing to set up their foundries/chip manufacturing facilities. With both US and EU spending tens of billions of dollars setting up new foundries/chip manufacturing facilities within their borders. However, these facilities are mostly being set up by TSMC. As for now only they have the expertise and resources to set up such a facility, and it would be at least a decade (or several major cyberattacks) before others can catch up.
Quite often in the rush to pursue big things we often forget the small parts that make them. The semiconductor industry is no different, so often we are mesmerized by the Googles and the Amazons that we forget the power of the chips that drive them and the ASMLs and TSMCs that create them. This article is not a complete overview, but that is not what its purpose was. The purpose was to introduce you to this new world that I recently discovered and encourage you to find out more about the power of the chips. I hope you enjoyed the read!