Sit tight, chip shortage likely to last to 2023, says top supplier to auto industry

May 4, 2021, 6:29 PM UTC

Carmakers hoping for relief from the acute global chip shortage may have to wait until 2023 before things return to normal, German semiconductor supplier Infineon warned on Tuesday.

Infineon’s own inventories are depleted; downstream facilities responsible for final assembly are waiting on shipments of raw chips; and its factory in Austin would need four months to fully recover from February’s storm-related power outages in Texas.

And that’s the good news. 

The real problems are found on the other side of the globe, beyond the influence of Infineon’s management. Bottlenecks in supply from foundries such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) in Asia are immutable. These white-label producers specialize in manufacturing chips on contract for branded suppliers such as Infineon.

All the company and its automotive customers can do is sit tight and wait.

Infineon’s words carry weight, since it is the top supplier of chips to the car industry with just over 13% of the $35 billion global market.

Fighting for every wafer

“Everyone is jostling to get more of them, whether it is for personal computers, mobile phones, automobiles, or what have you,” chief executive Reinhard Ploss told reporters on Tuesday. 

“We’re fighting for every wafer.”

Already downbeat about supply prospects through the rest of this year, Infineon isn’t too optimistic about the next one either. While Asian contract manufacturers should be able step up their output next year, these are just improvements around the edges.

Any material increase will first come once all-new clean rooms are built from scratch. Only in these controlled, dust-free environments can transistors, a fraction of the width of a human hair, be safely printed onto silicon wafers.

“The situation will be tight in 2022,” said operations chief Jochen Hanebeck, responsible for relations with its contract assembly partners. “The foundries are investing now, but the lead times to get this new capacity will be easily into 2023.” 

U.S. carmaker Ford shocked markets when it announced last week the chip shortage would lead to unforeseen headwinds of $2.5 billion hitting its bottom line. Ford’s global vehicle production in the current quarter got slashed by half from previous plans. Its message to investors was simple but bleak: The best three months of this year had already come and gone; only a fallow period remained for the rest of 2021.

Other rivals including Mercedes warned that the Texas storm and a fire at Japanese chip supplier Renesas meant the situation would get worse before it got better.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Infineon’s Ploss conceded. He expects to see tens of millions of euros in lost revenue owing to the slow process of resuming operations in Austin.

Expectations for lost sales were however slightly worse, previously. The Texas site was acquired in only the spring of last year via Infineon’s purchase of rival Cypress for a combined 9 billion euros ($10.8 billion) in equity and debt.  

Red flags everywhere

The problem for carmakers is that many suppliers have specialized in designing semiconductors. For more run-of-the-mill chips where there is less room for competitive differentiation, Infineon chose to outsource the assembly to Asia like many of its peers. 

Roughly 80% of Infineon’s microcontroller business is supplied by foundries, the white-label producers in Asia. This spares the German company the need to continuously deploy capital in an area of the business where it lacks the necessary scale compared with a TSMC. 

Instead, Infineon’s European production network has focused on a growing slice of the semiconductor market that serves power electronics. These are needed in devices that require careful management of voltages and current, such as wind farms and electric vehicles. 

Ploss’s warnings came after the chipmaker posted results for the fiscal second quarter, ended in March. Figures showed a surge in demand from nearly every business division, prompting the company to lift its cautious forecast for full year revenue, underlying profitability, and cash flow guidance once again. 

Perhaps the single biggest red flag was the blistering pace at which incoming automotive orders were placed versus the rate at which chips were delivered—called the book-to-bill ratio. The value hit 2.3 times the level of revenue recorded in the past quarter, seesawing wildly from the two-tenths recorded only nine months earlier. Roughly a year’s worth of deliveries is already reserved in advance.

With an estimated 2.5 million fewer cars built worldwide in the first half of 2021, Ploss said he believes automakers are waking up to the fact that part of the problem was due to their vaunted “just in time” system of lean manufacturing. This relies on the delivery of parts to the factory line for direct assembly in vehicles rather than draining precious cash reserves with the warehousing of spare parts. 

“We do believe that everyone is aware that this idea of ordering parts when you need them and canceling them then when you don’t will not return,” the Infineon CEO said.

“We’re certain this lesson has been learned permanently.”

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