Not a year has passed since the paralysis of automobile factories around the world and brands once again feel threatened by the same torture of reducing production. The lack of supply of the tiny and increasingly used chips is now becoming his biggest headache. Semiconductor manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand and the almighty automotive industry must catch up and wait in line behind the brands of computers, smartphones and video game consoles that, far from reducing sales, have registered a boom with restrictions pandemics and Christmas.
In December, brands present in China and India warned of the problem, which became a global setback in just weeks. Volkswagen has affected, among others, its plant in Wolfsburg, the group’s headquarters. Mercedes, yours from Rasttat. Honda cuts production in the UK. Audi has canceled work shifts at its Mexican facilities. These are just a few examples of an impact on almost the entire automotive family. The Seat plants in Martorell and Ford in Almussafes are at the moment the only Spanish plants affected by a stoppage that threatens to prevent the assembly of one million vehicles worldwide, according to Oxford Economics forecasts. The 2020 supply chain collapse by covid has already left 14 million units unproduced.
Those missing semiconductors now digest the 100 million lines of programming code that drive a vehicle today. They are essential for the electronic central units of the cars or to control their traction. But chips for WIFI and bluetooth connections are also experiencing delays of up to ten weeks. The greater digitization of vehicles, influenced by the emergence of electric and hybrid cars, only increases dependence.
The Seat plants in Martorell and Ford in Almussafes are currently the only Spanish plants affected
“There will be effects on volumes in the first and perhaps the second quarter of 2021,” the Volkswagen Group tells this newspaper, which does not rule out the possibility of having to take new measures depending on how the crisis evolves, although it admits not have a lot to do to resolve the situation. “The relaxation of the supply situation depends largely on the semiconductor industry,” he says.
The issue is not just about car brands. Its main suppliers also note the constraints of not receiving semiconductors. Bosch, Continental or Valeo are just some examples that have confirmed damages.
While the automotive industry suffers the tensions of the situation, the Taiwanese TSMC (among its clients were Apple and Qualcomm and Intel has just joined), the world’s largest chip producer, rubs its hands with the best sales and quarterly profits in its history and predicts growth in the coming years. South Korea estimates it can increase its chip exports by 10% this year. And the Philadelphia Semiconductor Industry Index is running wild, with a capitalization one-third higher than precovid levels.
“What we are generating is a record performance, and what we are spending to increase that is double what we spent in 2020,” the head of the Globalfoundries automotive division, Mike Hogan, who until now offered a small portion of its production to the sector and now it has detected a target.
One of the origins of the problem is the fall in the market and in production that the automotive sector suffered last year, which forced the automotive industry to reduce inventories and orders. To take this setback, semiconductor manufacturers reduced their orders to their foundries. The problem has been after normalizing production. “Starting a plant of this type is not like making churros. It is a very complex process that responds to nanometric questions, with a very sophisticated and efficient industry, but also highly planned. And you cannot accumulate stocks because they are extremely expensive, ”says Esade professor Xavier Farrés. In short, it can take months to restore normalcy.
A geopolitical battle
To these factors of production are added others. The semiconductor sector has also been affected by the geopolitical battle between the United States and China. These small components play a central role in the growing confrontation between the two superpowers. The dynamics are fed back: while the former try to slow down the technological emergence of the latter, the latter push to achieve self-sufficiency in this key industry as soon as possible, an aspiration still beyond their reach.
Official figures show the importance that China attaches to semiconductors, which represent its first import. In 2018, the Asian giant acquired 312,000 million dollars (266,500 million euros) of these products, according to data from its customs, almost 25% more than what it spent on oil. To boost domestic production, the government has also mobilized large sums of capital: in October 2019 it started a specific fund worth 204 billion yuan (26 billion euros).
The United States, for its part, strikes. Last August, the Commerce Department limited its companies’ exports to the main Chinese producer, SMIC, claiming that its components ran an “unacceptable risk” of being used “for military purposes.” This was a blow for SMIC, given that more than half of its industrial equipment comes from the country.
These pressures, which threaten to break the global supply chain in two, have had a strong impact on the semiconductor market. On the one hand, bureaucratic obstacles between China and the US have created bottlenecks in many lines, undermining the productive capacity of a highly globalized sector. Many of the actors, moreover, have fueled the blockade by increasing their purchases to load up on stocks; a strategy with which they intend to shield themselves against the possibility that industrial conditions worsen, due to bilateral relations for which there is no prospect of improvement.