How Intel squandered the boom in chip demand and lost its semiconductor crown

January 20, 2022, 9:41 AM UTC

The world may be enduring a semiconductor shortage, but the crunch isn’t for a lack of supply: the problem is an excess of demand, and semiconductor makers have made good use of that scarcity to boost sales and score record revenues during the “chip crisis” of 2021.

According to research from Gartner, revenues across global semiconductor makers surged 25.1% last year with sales topping $500 billion for the first time. The “combination of strong demand as well as logistics and raw material price increases” drove average sales prices upward, says Gartner research vice president Andrew Norwood, earning chipmakers record revenues.

But not all chipmakers reaped the benefits of the bumper demand equally. Intel, pioneer of the chip industry, lost its top sales spot to rival Samsung. And reclaiming the lead won’t be easy, since the good times might not last for chipmakers. The revenue-boosting chip shortage threatens to reverse into a chip glut in the years ahead, erasing the scarcity that has driven sales upward and putting downward pressure on chip prices.

Intel loses its crown

Top among the semiconductor vendors tracked by Gartner was South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, which dethroned Intel as the world’s leading chipmaker by revenues for the first time since 2018.

According to Gartner, Samsung’s revenue surged 31.6% last year, to $75.9 billion. Samsung’s incredible growth was buoyed by its memory-chip segment, which saw sales surge 34% in 2021, boosted by work-from-home demand for personal electronics and cloud services. Intel’s sales, meanwhile, grew just 0.5%, to $73 billion.

Although still in second place, Intel has suffered multiple setbacks in the past two years. In 2020, the California company delayed the launch of its most cutting-edge chipset by two years, losing ground to competition. Then, Intel lost a lucrative and long-standing contract to supply chips for Apple’s Macs.

Worse yet, in 2021 Intel began outsourcing production of its core chipsets to a third-party manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), for the first time ever, as Intel’s own manufacturing plants were no longer advanced enough to produce the chips in house.

Gartner doesn’t include TSMC on its ranking of semiconductor makers because the Taiwanese group is a pure-play foundry—meaning TSMC doesn’t produce chips for itself, it only makes chips for clients, like Intel. If Gartner did include TSMC in its list, the Taiwanese company would rank third by sales.

Last week, TSMC announced an 18.5% growth in revenue for 2021, hitting $57.45 billion in sales. The group, which is the world’s largest contract chipmaker, anticipates strong demand for chipsets will continue well into the future, too. TSMC also announced it would spend $44 billion on expanding production capacity this year, as the group looks to invest a total $100 billion across a three-year period.

“The semiconductor industry growth will continue to be fueled by the structural megatrends of 5G and high-performance computing,” TSMC chairman Mark Liu said on an analyst call last Thursday.

Glut on the horizon

Continuing strong demand means the “chip shortage” might drag on until chipmakers like TSMC can bring extra capacity online, likely at the end of next year. But analysts at Morningstar warn that building excess production capacity could turn the chip shortage into a chip glut by 2024.

“We anticipate the short supply to end around 2024; and no foundry except Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company…can sustain the strong financial performance it has seen since the third quarter of 2020,” Morningstar analysts wrote in a note last month.

Morningstar expects the shortage will ease as automakers, which were largely responsible for sparking the chip crisis, readjust sales predictions for the year ahead. Morningstar also warns that although chipmakers will see some increased demand from emerging fields like 5G and Bitcoin mining, the new demand will eat up 40% of planned capacity expansion.

“Recent foundry announcements to expand will only add pressure to the next oversupply, as previous cycles dictate,” Morningstar says. “Structural demand for semiconductors will grow, but we believe it will be shy of announced expansions once these new fabs are built.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.