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The global semiconductor shortage that has paralyzed automakers for nearly a year shows signs of worsening, as new coronavirus infections halt chip assembly lines in Southeast Asia, forcing more car companies and electronics manufacturers to suspend production.
A wave of delta-variant cases in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines is causing production delays at factories that cut and package semiconductors, creating new bottlenecks on top of those caused by soaring demand for chips.
Underscoring that the problem has defied easy solutions, the White House on Thursday held its second summit in five months with semiconductor manufacturers and buyers, in part to gain more clarity on the scope of the crisis, senior administration officials said.
Attendees included senior executives from Intel, General Motors, Ford, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and two dozen other companies, as well as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.
Frustration has mounted on all sides. Automakers want semiconductor companies to crank out more chips for cars. Smartphone companies do not want their semiconductors diverted to automakers. Chip manufacturers say the auto industry shot itself in the foot by canceling semiconductor orders after the covid crisis hit. They are also impatient for Congress to approve $52 billion in federal subsidies to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing. That measure, supported by the White House, has cleared the Senate but not the House.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, says that while it can play a supporting role, it expects the private sector to take the lead in sorting out the crisis.
"It's on industry to come up with the solutions here and to identify some of the path forward," one of the administration officials said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Thursday's meeting.
At the meeting, Raimondo asked companies to fill out questionnaires to clarify how much supply and demand there really is in the market, and said the administration would consider invoking the Defense Production Act to compel them to provide the information if they don't comply, a Commerce Department spokeswoman said, confirming a Bloomberg News report.
The administration wants the information in part to address a big problem: Manufacturers are placing chip orders larger than what they actually need because they're concerned suppliers won't fill the entire order, industry executives say. That makes it hard for semiconductor factories to know what they need to supply to meet real, short-term needs - and how much they should invest in new production lines. The administration also wants the information to determine whether some chip buyers are hoarding supplies.
Also known as computer chips, semiconductors are the brains behind modern electronics. Demand for the components is soaring as more consumer goods become computerized, but supply is scarce because semiconductor factories are extremely expensive and time-consuming to build.
Pat Gelsinger, the chief executive of Intel, the U.S.'s largest chip maker, has said he expects shortages to last into 2023. Others say it could last through the end of that year.
"The chip shortage continues to get worse and at this point we're going to go through 2023," said Ambrose Conroy, founder of Seraph Consulting, which is advising car companies on the crisis.
Automakers, which rely on dozens of chips to build a single vehicle, have been particularly hard hit, forced to halt production lines globally as they await chip supplies. The debacle is likely to cost the auto industry $450 billion in global sales from the start of the crisis through the end of 2022, according to Seraph Consulting.
Martin Daum, chief executive of the Daimler AG division that makes trucks and buses, described the problem as intensifying.
"Until the second quarter we were able to manage the situation quite well at Daimler Truck," Daum said Wednesday. "But since summer the semiconductor situation has worsened for us. Our production in Germany and the U.S. was affected, which led to a situation in which we could deliver fewer vehicles to our customers."
Even automakers such as Toyota and Hyundai, which planned for potential shortages and initially managed to avoid crippling shutdowns, are starting to encounter problems.
Toyota this month was forced to slash production at 14 factories in Japan over a lack of semiconductors. Some of the cuts will continue into October due to a lack of components from Southeast Asia, Toyota has said.
Ford and General Motors in recent months have been suspending production for weeks at a time at more than a dozen North American factories. As a result, Ford this month said its U.S. sales declined by 33 percent in August compared with a year ago.
The list of attendees at the White House meeting - including the medical device maker Medtronic and the appliance manufacturer Siemens - shows how the problem is hurting industries beyond autos.
"This is having an impact all across the economy, with automobiles, yes, but even beyond that, into medical devices, networking equipment - we're hearing regularly from companies that cannot get the supply they need," one of the Biden administration officials said.
Administration officials said the United States is asking its embassies around the world to help monitor production problems at chip factories and to provide any technical assistance needed to keep them running.
"I applaud Secretary Raimondo for her leadership today in recognizing the current chip shortage requires both short and long-term solutions," Tom Caulfield, chief executive of the U.S.-based chip manufacturer GlobalFoundries, said in an emailed statement after the meeting.
Some chipmakers have taken steps to help auto manufacturers. Taiwan's TSMC, which produces a type of chip called a microcontroller that is widely used by automakers, said it is increasing output of the components by 60 percent this year compared with 2020.
GlobalFoundries is adding manufacturing equipment to a factory near Albany, N.Y., to increase output for all types of chips, and recently broke ground on a $4 billion expansion of its factory in Singapore, with financial support from the Singaporean government.
Globally, chip factories have increased their production capacity by 8 percent since early 2020 and plan to boost it by over 16 percent by the end of 2022, according to the U.S.-based Semiconductor Industry Association.
Global spending on semiconductor manufacturing equipment is likely to grow by more than 30 percent this year to $85 billion, showing that chipmakers are expanding production, according to C.J. Muse, a semiconductor analyst at Evercore ISI.
But that comes after chip companies had "underinvested over the last five years," he said. Industry executives say investment has been particularly low in production lines for automotive chips because they are older-tech components that offer lower profits.
Some semiconductor companies are holding back on big domestic investments until the subsidy plan is signed into law. GlobalFoundries has said it will double output at its New York site by building a new facility there if the subsidies come through.