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Intel aims to vault ahead of competition during chip shortage

December 2, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

Software ate the world. Now, artificial intelligence is eating software. But both of them are starving without semiconductors. 

Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger acknowledges that the company has fallen behind competitors Samsung in Korea and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). That’s why he has committed to spending $250 billion over the next decade on capital investments to vault Intel ahead of its competition. That includes $95 billion on chip manufacturing, as Fortune reported in September.

The company is spending $20 billion this year, and the goal is $25 billion to $28 billion next year.

“I expect that will be the low mark of my tenure,” Gelsinger said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday. 

“Take that times 10. This is, you know, a quarter trillion dollars of capital investment,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the largest manufacturing build-outs in any industry in any period.”

Gelsinger became Intel’s first chief technology officer in 2001 but left in 2009 for data-storage company EMC. After nearly nine years at enterprise software firm VMware, he returned to Intel in February. 

Smartphones, refrigerators, mirrors—software is everywhere. All require semiconductors to function. That is not saying anything new, and printing it in Fortune is like telling an astronomer that there are a lot of stars. 

But when Gelsinger arrived at Intel, the company was suffering from years of stingy capital investment, a loss of focus, and other missteps, he said. The company was in a “bad spot.”

His mission has been to bring back a maniacal focus on being a data-driven, engineering-centric company, he said. “As I like to say, ‘The geek is back.’” 

The geek has some catching up to do with competitors Samsung and TSMC in the leading-edge process node technology at the heart of making semiconductors. Gelsinger has put resources into closing that gap, as well as into the building of two new fabrication plants, or fabs, as they are called in the industry, in Arizona and Texas. 

Each fab costs about $10 billion, according to Gelsinger. But if Intel built the facilities in Taiwan or Korea, it would receive considerable subsidies.

“That means we’re not competing with TSMC or Samsung; we’re competing with Taiwan Inc. and Korea Inc.,” he said. 

Both face geopolitical risks, though.

As a reminder that the Korean Peninsula is still technically at war, the U.S. and South Korea are updating their operational war plans in the face of North Korea’s growing military capabilities, according to news reports.

Over several days in early October, Chinese warplanes, including the Shenyang J-16 fighter and nuclear-capable Xian H-6 bomber, flew hundreds of sorties into Taiwanese airspace.  

“[Does that] make you feel more comfortable or less if you are now dependent on Taiwan as the singular source of technology for the most critical aspect of human existence and our national security and economy for the future?” he said. “This is precarious. We need to take action.”

The ongoing global chip shortage has underscored just how much the world depends on a steady supply of chips. 

At the end of 2019, the Semiconductor Industry Association expected chip demand to grow by about 6% in 2020 and 2021.

And then, in a now common refrain, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic emptied schools, stores, and offices. Rush-hour traffic gave way to streams of delivery trucks as e-commerce boomed. 

“You went from needing one PC at home to needing four PCs, because each of the kids needed one, Mom needed one, Dad needed one,” Gelsinger said. 

In August, sales were nearly 30% higher than they had been a year earlier, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

“All of a sudden you see what was likely going to be a bit of a shortage become an absolute gulf,” Intel’s chief executive said. 

This summer, Gelsinger told the BBC that the chip shortage could drag on into 2023.

Whenever it ends, he wants to make sure Intel is ready to challenge Samsung and TSMC.

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