South Korea’s technology industry has been growing for decades now. They are already one of the leaders when it comes to smartphone technology thanks to Samsung and LG. A major reason for this is that South Korea is one of the top manufacturers of semiconductors thanks to Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. The two companies are one of the top manufacturers of semiconductors in the world. The United States, South Korea, and Taiwan are the three countries that are dominating the semiconductor industry. However, the top customer by far is China. Semiconductor companies are crucial for the development of chips that are used to create electronic devices like smartphones and PCs.

So what exactly are Semiconductors?

Semiconductor IndustrySemiconductors are like the “seed” of electronic devices. Conductors conduct electricity. Insulators on the other hand don’t conduct electricity. Therefore semiconductors fall in between the two. Integrated circuits made using such electronic properties are called semiconductor chips. Furthermore, billions of transistors lie inside a single chip which can be as small as a dime. These transistors are the building blocks of digital codes. If electricity is being passed through the gate of a transistor, it is recognized as a 1. If not, it is recognized as 0. Semiconductors process all kinds of information using binary numbers (1s and 0s).

Semiconductors – How its made

Manufacturers use silicon (found in sand) to create semiconductors. Silicon is used to make thin round wafers. On these wafers, they build tiny intricate circuits on them over the course of hundreds of processes. Since billions of transistors must be placed inside this small area, it is very important to be small yet precise. The semiconductor making process has evolved greatly over the years. However, there are physical limitations on how small the circuit can get. Therefore, many companies started using 3D transistors which allowed them to create 10-nanometer chips which were the smallest at the time in 2017. How small is 10-nanometers? It is 10 thousand times thinner than the diameter of a single human hair.

Why do these circuits have to be so small? The smaller the width of the circuit the shorter the traveling distance of the electron. This improves the efficiency as well as the performance of the chip. In addition, the more chips per wafer mean less production cost and a lower price. Today some semiconductor companies are working on chips that are 2-nanometers!

China the #1 Buyer in the Semiconductor Industry 

China semiconductor IndustryToday, China’s semiconductor market is the biggest in the world. Over half of the world’s semiconductors go to China. This trend continues to grow as China’s demand for tech products like computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and digital TVs keeps increasing. In addition, it is estimated that China creates:

  • 90% of the world’s smartphones
  • 60% of the world’s PCs
  • 65% of the world’s smart TVs

Many of these factories are located in mainland China (some are non-Chinese firms). Add this to the Chinese government’s interest in a national optic fiber tracking system and the roll-out of 5G infrastructure continues to drive the market. In addition, China will also start focusing on new energy, autonomous driving, and creating smart factories which will further drive the demand for semiconductors.

Becoming the leader in the Semiconductor Industry

Now China’s goal is to become the leader in semiconductor production by 2030. Their focus till then will be on advancing semiconductor manufacturing in China through investment, acquisition, and talent recruitment. South Korea still has an 18% market share in the semiconductor market compared to China’s 4%.

Since 2016, China started to buy expertise from abroad to get as much talent in this high tech industry as possible. China created the National Integrated Circuit Industry Equity Investment Fund which has raised over $18 billion. In addition, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China will spend $150 billion over the next decade to support the semiconductor sector. The majority of that money was spent on buying expertise from foreign competitors in South Korea and America. For example, China is currently offering double the salary for experienced engineers and managers related to semiconductor manufacturing compared to Taiwan. Recently, China created a $29 billion fund to invest in the semiconductor industry.

Finally, the Chinese government incentivized companies to come into China while also lowering barriers for entry for foreign participants in China’s semiconductor production. The ultimate goal is for China to mainly depend on itself to meet its semiconductor demands. Currently, China depends on 84% of its semiconductor requirements from imports.

The Top Manufacturers in the Semiconductor Industry 

Currently, the leading manufacturers of semiconductors are the United States, South Korea, and Taiwan. China does not have an advanced semiconductor manufacturing facility. All of their facilities can’t compare to the ones in the United States, South Korea, and Taiwan. The leading vendor in the semiconductor industry is Intel at 16% market share in 2019. Samsung is second at 12.5%.

Intel (United States)

IntelWhen it comes to design, the United States dominates. Intel is the biggest semiconductor manufacturer in the United States. Their market cap stands at over $250 billion. They design and manufacture motherboard chipsets, network interface controllers, and integrated circuits. They were the first to make a metal oxide semiconductor. Their main competitor could be Apple moving forward. Apple could discontinue its long term partnership with Intel and start its own chip manufacturing sector in-house.

Samsung Electronics (South Korea)

SamsungSamsung is at the cutting edge of manufacturing. Right there with Taiwan. The South Korean government released an AI semiconductor development strategy to achieve a global market share of 20% with 20 innovative companies and 3,000 top-level engineers in the semiconductor industry by 2030. Samsung is already researching AI semiconductors that have the potential for high performance and lower power intake. These new semiconductors will create new markets in the areas of IoT, mobility, and many more industries. The aim is to release 50 demand-specific AI chips by 2030. Therefore, the South Korean government will provide over $60 million in funds for innovative companies to assist in their R&D.

China has been the biggest market for South Korea to export semiconductors (Over 40%). The trade war between China and the United States have prevented South Korea from selling semiconductors that have US technologies.

TSMC (Taiwan)

Semiconductor Industry TSMCTaiwan is looked at as the gold standard when it comes to semiconductor manufacturing as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) is the world’s largest and most advanced semiconductor manufacturer and supplies chips to both Huawei and Apple. If you compare a Chinese semiconductor manufacturing facility to TSMC, one creates 14nm nodes while the other is working to create 2nm nodes.

China vs the United States

The trade war between the United States and China has shown just how reliant China is on foreign chips. Huawei was placed on the U.S. Entity list in May of 2019. Therefore Huawei needed to find a new supplier of chips to build their smartphones. They found their suppliers in Japan, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. However, in August of 2020, the United States further limited Huawei from getting foreign-made chips that were developed or produced with U.S. software or technology by adding 38 additional Huawei affiliates to the Entity List. Since Taiwan, gets 60% of its revenue from the United States, they have already stopped manufacturing for Huawei. Therefore, this shows just how powerful the United States is in regards to its role in the semiconductor supply chain.