Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

China and the US reshaping their semiconductor supply chains present both challenges and opportunities for India: Chris Miller

The historian and author of the 2022 book Chip War talks about the brewing supply chain war between the two countries, why India has a lot of work to do to develop its talent pipeline, how AI is going to play a bigger and bigger role in the chip industry, and more

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Apr 11, 2024 12:35:14 PM IST
Updated: Apr 11, 2024 12:50:47 PM IST

China and the US reshaping their semiconductor supply chains present both challenges and opportunities for India: Chris MillerChris Miller, author of the 2022 book Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology. Image: Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

The semiconductor chip war has intensified amid rising geopolitical tensions and strained ties between the US and China. Diversifying the chip supply chain and gaining AI chip dominance have become more important than ever. Currently, most of the world’s chips are designed in the US and manufactured in Asia. The most-sought-after advanced silicon chips are made in Taiwan and South Korea. Over 90 percent comes from the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). National security concerns and having the world's best chips have prompted the US to bolster domestic chip production.

In a conversation with Forbes India, Chris Miller, author of the 2022 book Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology, talks about China’s approach in the chip industry, tackling the talent shortage and India’s role in the brewing supply chain war. Edited excerpts:

Q. Which part of the chip value chain needs more hands on deck?
All of them, but in different ways. In the coming years, there is going to be more emphasis on chip design. Because most of the advances we see will accrue from better design techniques as opposed to better manufacturing techniques. A lot of innovation is happening in the packaging space. And there's also a need for diversification, because today, China is by far one of the largest players in testing and packaging, and the rest of the world is quite reliant on China in ways that bring up some serious diversity of supply risk. The areas where Indian firms are investing—power semiconductors and more foundational logic chips—are rational places to invest. These firms can establish deep links with their customers and ensure that they have local customers.

Raw material is not the most complex part of the chip industry. It's refining them to the requisite level of precision because in the chip industry, manufacturing processes often require 99.9999 percent purity for many materials. That's actually an underestimate for certain of the materials involved. The challenge isn't digging them out of the ground or acquiring the materials in their raw form, but processing and purifying them. It happens at specialty chemical firms, largely in Japan, which is the world's leader in this type of ultra-purified, ultra-refined chemical and material production.

Q. Talent shortage is a big challenge in this sector. What can be done to address the issue?
It is a huge issue in every semiconductor company I talk to and in every country that I go to. This is a place where India has plenty of work that it can do to further develop its talent pipeline. A large number of Indian employees are already working in semiconductor companies, doing things like design and verification. This is a positive, as these employees have gained expertise in the industry. The new batch of engineering talent from India should be coupled with business expertise. Especially when you start talking about establishing new companies, partly it's about technical expertise, but a lot of it is about identifying the business opportunity and understanding marketing, supply chain management and product development. Those are things that you don't learn in engineering class, but you do learn in business school and in running businesses. This part of the talent problem often gets underestimated in discussions, but it's actually just as important as a degree in engineering or material science.

Q. Which sector consumes the most number of chips?
Most chips consumed in dollar value would either be in the smartphone or data centre sectors. Both of them consume roughly a quarter of all chips that are produced in dollar value. And that's because the chips that go inside your phone and in data centres are extremely expensive. Other sectors, like consumer devices and traditional manufacturing, consume cheaper chips. A new car often has 1,000 chips inside, but many of those chips are much cheaper. Sometimes they can cost only $1 or even less, whereas a data centre chip can cost up to $10,000.

Q. National security concerns are one of the reasons why the US and China are aggressively expanding their manufacturing capacity. What role can other countries, like India, play?
The fact that China and the US are trying to see supply chains reshaped presents both challenges and opportunities for India. The challenge is that because China is investing so much and subsidising its firms so heavily, it is difficult for companies from any country to compete with China in an open market. Even Japan, Taiwan and the US find themselves competing head-on with heavily subsidised Chinese competitors. The Chinese firms don't have the most advanced technology. But in lower-tech chips, they're just as good as many established firms, and that’s why established firms are feeling a lot of price pressure.

The opportunity is that the US, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and European firms are trying to establish China plus one supply chain. In other words, have a China-focussed supply chain largely intended to sell to Chinese customers, and then have a rest-of-the-world supply chain that involves as little of China as possible. This presents a lot of opportunity for India in chip making, testing and packaging, and device assembly. The majority of this today happens in China, which is going to shift. Apple is a good example of this. Until recently, it assembled almost all of its phones in China. Reportedly, it's trying to assemble up to a quarter in Tamil Nadu by the end of next year. That's just one company, emblematic of the shifting supply chains that are underway.

Q. What are the learnings for India from China, which has been investing in the chip industry since 2014 and yet imports 75 percent of it?
The Chinese approach has not been primarily market-driven. China has invested in firms that are not very profitable. There has been little use of a market mechanism to determine where the Chinese investment funds are going. Measuring return on invested capital, the Chinese chip investment funds are probably among the worst venture capital firms in the world in terms of return. That's probably not a model that you'd want to emulate. Thinking hard about how you get a good return on capital is key to long-term viability, which means you've got to invest in firms that have a viable business model in the long run.

On the bright side, China has done much better where it has attracted device assembly, like the assembly of phones or PCs, which is a really low value-added business in the assembly. The new smartphone costs $1,000; the actual assembly process only costs $5 or $10. Take an iPhone, for example. Of all the materials inside, around a quarter of them by value are sourced from Chinese firms. In the initial iPhones, it was only the assembly that was done a decade ago. China has dramatically increased the value that accrues to Chinese firms in smartphone production by learning to produce the components as well. And we're in the very early stages of seeing that in India. It’s going to take some time for Indian firms to learn how to produce and competitively produce the types of components that go into electronics. It's not a good idea to just focus on assembling devices because you're not capturing a lot of the value. Whereas if you start producing components, suddenly more value starts accruing to your firm.

Q. Transistors are getting smaller and smaller. It's only going to get difficult to shrink them further. What are companies like Intel and TSMC doing to keep Moore's Law alive?
They've got vast investment programs underway to develop new technologies. They're going to keep shrinking transistors and packing them more densely together. These firms also continue to invest in new design methodologies to ensure they've got better designs as well as better manufacturing processes. That's going to be just as important as the manufacturing improvements that are coming down the line.

Q. Where do you think the chip industry will stand in 2030?
AI is going to play a bigger and bigger role in the chip industry and change the way chips are designed and produced. AI will be a larger source of demand for new types of chips. That's what we see right now, with Nvidia becoming the world's third-most valuable company. A series of companies and products that emerge will be driven by the need for better chips for AI.