TSMC to Build Chip Fab in Japan

Japanese government helps subsidize project as chip shortage threatens economies around the world

3 min read

Foreground is a phone with the tsmc logo of tsmc in red and a circular semiconductor fab. Background is the same logo.
Pavlo Gonchar/Sipa/AP

After a week of media rumor, leaks and speculation, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world's largest contract chip manufacturer, announced in an online earnings briefing Thursday that it would build a semiconductor plant in Japan. The announcement comes just a few months after the chip giant announced its intention to build a $12 billion fab in Arizona. Construction will begin next year, the company said, subject to approval by TSMC's board, with full production expected to begin in 2024.

"The plant will use 22- and 28-nanometer line processing," said Tadahiro Kuroda, Director of Systems Design Lab (d.lab) at the Graduate School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo. "So it's not an advanced foundry like the Arizona plant that will use 7 nanometers." But he adds it can produce a range of devices that go into consumer products, sensors, IoT, and auto parts.

During the earnings briefing C.C. Wei, TSMC's CEO, said the company had received help from its Japanese customers and the government to establish the plant in Japan. Wei did not reveal the amount of investment or the fab's planned location.

The projected plant's 22 and 28-nanometer processes will produce a range of devices suitable for consumer products, sensors, IoT, and auto parts.

But Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in the Diet (Parliament) the same day of the announcement that investment would be about one trillion yen (almost $8.8 billion) and the government would provide financial aid. An earlier report by Nikkei, Japan's top business publication, citing "multiple people familiar with the matter," said the plant would be located in Kumamoto Prefecture, western Japan, "on land owned by Sony and in an area adjacent to the latter's image sensor factory."

That report would make sense, says Kuroda, because Sony is TSMC's biggest customer in Japan.

The announcement comes as the global semiconductor supply chain is buffeted by a perfect storm that began brewing several years ago when the U.S.-China trade war erupted. Since then, the world economy has taken a battering from COVID-19, conflict is growing between Taiwan and China in the Taiwan Strait separating the island from mainland China, and a global chip shortage is now hurting production plans of even the world's largest corporations. This week, it was reported that Apple is likely to cut production of its new iPhone 13 output this year by as many as 10 million devices because of a lack of chips. Earlier, on September 10, Toyota announced it was "making further adjustments to our production operations," an outcome that saw its global output fall by 70,000 units in September, to be followed by 330,000 units cut for October. Toyota blames the effects of the pandemic and semiconductor shortages.

The shrinking availability of chips and its negative impact on industries at large has underscored how dependent Europe, the U.S. and Japanese economies have become on semiconductor devices predominantly made in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Not surprisingly, serious efforts are underway to reduce this vulnerability.

In May, Gina Raimondo, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, proposed additional funding of $52 billion on semiconductor research and production. A boost that could see as many as ten new foundries built in the U.S. Europe, too, is making similar noise. Last December, 22 members of the E.U. declared they would work together to reinforce "Europe's capabilities in semiconductor technologies," including "investment along the semiconductor value chain on equipment and materials, design and advanced manufacturing."

Not wanting to be left behind in this silicon turnabout, the Japan government too is seeking ways to boost the country's chip production capacity. The day before the TSMC announcement, Kishida told the Diet he would "promote the establishment of chip production bases in Japan and implement solid measures to strengthen the supply chain for semiconductors."

"In fact, TSMC is only part of the government's strategy," notes Kuroda. "They would also like Intel and other major U.S. chip manufacturers to set up plants here."

Kuroda spent 16 years in Toshiba's semiconductor division before coming to academia to conduct engineering research. Given his background, he was asked by the University of Tokyo (UTokyo), Japan's leading national institute of higher learning, to join it and help set up in November 2019 an alliance with TSMC to conduct advanced semiconductor research.

TSMC, says Kuroda, has 7 nm process technology that Japan wants, while Japan's academia is advanced in basic research in physics, chemistry, and materials. "This knowledge will be needed," says Kuroda, "to create future devices after Moore's Law ends, so we are collaborating together."

To facilitate the exchange of knowhow, UTokyo has set up two organizations to work with domestic manufacturers: the Research Association for Advanced Systems (RaaS), which has restricted membership, and d.lab, which is open to all. Kuroda is both the chairman of RaaS, and the director of d.lab.

"RaaS is kind of a bi-directional gateway," Kuroda explains. TSMC gains fundamental science knowledge to help it build more advanced chips. Also, in making available its 7 nm knowhow, it can cultivate new customers for its services in Japan. At the same time, "RaaS members like Hitachi, Panasonic and Toppan get access to TSMC knowhow," he says. "This makes it a win-win for both sides."

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