How will chipmaker TSMC spend $100 billion in 3 years? Easy

April 1, 2021, 11:28 AM UTC

The world is currently facing a severe semiconductor shortage that has forced automakers and electronics manufacturers to delay the launch of new product lines. There’s no quick way out of the crunch. The world’s largest contract chip manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), is expecting demand to remain high—so high, in fact, that it’s planning to invest a staggering $100 billion over the next three years to supply it.

The investment anticipates “growth that will follow in the next few years,” a TSMC spokesperson said in an email to Fortune, adding that the proposed $100 billion is not a response to the current chip shortage. “We always work closely with our customers, and we do not build speculative capacity.”

TSMC announced its $100 billion investment to “increase capacity to support the manufacturing and R&D of advanced semiconductor technologies” during an investors conference in January, but international media only recently became aware of the news and is still wrapping its head around the enormous sum.

Subscribe to Eastworld for weekly insight on what’s dominating business in Asia, delivered free to your inbox.

“In the chip business maybe $100 billion is a little less eye-popping than in other industries, but it’s still a big number,” says Ravi Vijayaraghavan, a partner at consultancy Bain & Co.

Truth is, semiconductor development is an expensive business, and $100 billion won’t be at all hard to spend.

TSMC has budgeted $12 billion for the development of a new semiconductor factory in Phoenix, with construction due to start next year. Last week, competitor Intel likewise committed $20 billion to building two new plants, also in Arizona.

“A big chunk of the cost is in the manufacturing equipment, which gets more expensive with every new generation of chip,” Vijayaraghavan says. Semiconductors are typically categorized by the distance between each transistor on the chip, measured in nanometers (nm). The tighter the gap, the more powerful the chip, and the trickier it is to make.

In January, TSMC CFO Wendell Huang said that the chipmaker is committed to spending up to $28 billion this year alone—a roughly $10 billion increase over the group’s 2020 capital expenditure. Roughly 80% of this year’s capex, Huang said, will be spent on the company’s three most advanced chipmaking processes—namely 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm chipsets.

TSMC and Samsung are the only chip manufacturers currently producing 5nm chips, with Intel expecting to manufacture less-sophisticated 7nm chips in 2022. With so few players on the cutting edge of the industry, TSMC has been left to satisfy a significant proportion of advanced demand, which is why its $100 billion investment might not be replicated by other players.

“Manufacturers of less-sophisticated chips are seeing a surge in demand because customers were stockpiling during the pandemic, increasing orders,” says Brady Wang, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, suggesting demand volumes will return to normal post-pandemic. But the surging demand for cutting-edge chips is buoyed by a long-term trend of advancing tech.

Electric and autonomous vehicles, cloud computing data centers, and 5G phones are all driving up the need for more sophisticated computing power, Wang says. TSMC, specifically, has reportedly scored major contracts from Apple and Intel, too—essentially maxing out the chipmaker’s current advanced capacity and necessitating the need to add more.

Whether TSMC’s budget of $100 billion over three years will become a new baseline for the company’s future investment is unclear. According to Vijayaraghavan, TSMC’s future spending might depend upon how much its closest competitors—Samsung, Intel, UMC, and GlobalFoundries—spend next. Because if competitors improve global capacity, TSMC won’t be on the hook to provide so much supply.

“It’s good to have competition,” Vijayaraghavan says. “You just want to keep an edge.”

More must-read tech coverage from Fortune: