back to article Intel offers to produce car chips for automakers stalled by ongoing semiconductor supply drought

Intel has offered to fabricate chips for cars within the next six to nine months to help automakers brought to their knees by the ongoing global semiconductor shortage. The move comes as President Biden hosted a virtual meeting with business leaders from the hardware and auto industry on Monday, including Intel’s CEO Pat …

  1. vtcodger Silver badge

    Meanwhile at the trough

    So Intel is leading the hogs to feed at the federal trough. Fair enough.

    One question though. I don't know a lot about semiconductor fabs, but I'm pretty sure that they are complex factories with a lot of special tooling and process unique support procedures and equipment. Does anyone who is more familiar with fabs and their workings think that 6 to 9 months is or is not enough time to repurpose one or more existing fab facility(ies) to making automobile chips?

    And are these new chips going to be identical to the old ones? Functional equivalents? Pretty much the same with only a few firmware tweaks needed? Something else?

    And what about whatever said fab used to make? Is that stuff then going to be in short supply?

    1. Richard Boyce

      Re: Meanwhile at the trough

      "And what about whatever said fab used to make? Is that stuff then going to be in short supply?"

      Exactly the point I was going to make. And it's not just the lost capacity while they're making the chips, it's the lost capacity in the 6 to 9 months while they're preparing to make them. These chips won't be cheap.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Meanwhile at the trough

      > whatever said fab used to make?

      At a guess, the automotive microprocessors are not very complex and could be fabricated with a ~20nm process, for which Intel might have fabs "just lying around", maybe making older CPU designs that are still offered in an embedded format. And now finally Intel has Xeon and mobile CPUs being made on the 10nm process, that probably also frees up significant 14nm capacity.

    3. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile at the trough

      In answer to everybody..

      Any chips made will have to pass QC, and while they'll be happy to use an older chip, any replacement is going to have to be tested... after all... if it ends up inside the radio and has a bug in the floating point math part, the radio is not really a vital system, but if it ends up inside the ABS computer and has a floating point overflow and it decides the wheels are'nt locking as a result....*

      The thing is though..... its going to have to be more fabs since the current ones are all full... even if they are going to make older tested CPUs which leads onto a crash in prices due to over supply in 2 years time and 6 years down the line we're back at a squeeze in supply because no one has built any fabs for the past 4 yrs....

      *hopefully the other chipery inside the ABS will see this and cut the ABS out of the braking system.....hopefully

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: Meanwhile at the trough

        its going to have to be more fabs since the current ones are all full...

        Can Intel or anyone else build a new fab in 6 to 9 months? That's 185-275 days from deciding to build to draw up plans, acquire permits, plumb water supplies, order and install equipment, order supplies (raw silicon? chemicals, etc) hire and train staff, etc,etc,etc.

        I remember visiting a fab once to fix someone's modem. There was a line of squirrel-cage blowers each the size or a suburban garage in the parking lot presumably awaiting installation. I'm pretty sure that huge air blowers are NOT something one orders on Amazon and gets delivered overnight. Acquiring stuff like that probably requires months of lead time and for all I know they are built up on site from parts as I suspect that delivery by road or rail is also a problem.

    4. Red Ted Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile at the trough

      One of the (many) issues will be that you can't just move designs between fabs owned by different companies.

      If you have any analogue parts in the design it will need to be re-optimised for the new process.

      If you have any propriety IP, such as non-volatile Flash, then you'll need to swap it out for whatever the new fab offers, which may not be functionally the same.

    5. hoola Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile at the trough

      My understanding is that the automotive industry is very much a "Just In Time" solution. Now clearly the chips are assembled into module so it is probably those that are in the JIT pipeline. Maybe some certainty in having chips in 9 months is better than having the correct chips with a very uncertain delivery.

      I would have thought the main issue is that they need them now, not in 9 months.

  2. A random security guy Bronze badge

    Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

    From what I know of the automotive industry, they take a long time to qualify parts.

    Maybe Intel is doing something different?

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

      You may be thinking of the aviation industry.

      The auto industry new part qualification procedure is as follows:

      If new_part_cost <= (old_part_cost - 50p) then bite supplier's arm off.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

        "If new_part_cost <= (old_part_cost - 50p) then bite supplier's arm off."

        Well shucks...my boss will be happy to hear that we can quit doing:

        * A, B, C, D, and production sample runs

        * FMEA

        * PPAP

        * temp cycle testing

        * thermal shock testing

        * EMC susceptibility testing

        * vibration testing

        * ESD susceptibility testing

        * drive testing

        We're going to save a ton of money and time!

      2. H in The Hague Silver badge

        Re: Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

        "If new_part_cost <= (old_part_cost - 50p) then bite supplier's arm off."

        No!

        I used to have a steel industry customer which made very, very basic parts for a motor manufacturer. When they had quality problems, their customer didn't replace them - qualifying a new supplier for even these basic parts (which you could make in your shed) would have taken a year or so. Instead, they sent a team to the supplier to help them iron out their quality issues.

        True, the automotive industry is very price sensitive, quality and reliability of supply are just as important.

    2. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

      Parts for cars are much higher specification than those for commercial/domestic use -- the parts are exposed to wide temperature swings and an electrically noisy environment. Intel used to make these sorts of parts but effectively dropped out of the embedded business 20 years ago or so to focus on the much more lucrative processor market.

      (I have my suspicions about this shortage based on the notion that semiconductors aren't made in just one place. Wafers may be made in one country, processed into curcuits in another, split up and packaged in a third and so on. I'd guess that in a typical semiconductor production chain China might figure in one or more steps, not necessarily wafer fabrication but any of the other steps in the process. Since we've been attacking the Chinese semiconductor industry with the stated goal of damaging or destroying it then its likely that the Chinese are not exactly falling over themselves to make good any production shortfalls. No open obstruction, of course, more a national scale version of 'working to rule'.)

      1. G.Y.

        Re: Automotive qualified parts take a long to time

        Parts for cars have higher qualifications than MILITARY -- forget commercial

  3. Gene Cash Silver badge

    There's no chip shortage!

    This continues to be a story where Intel and TSMC asked the auto industry "do you need chips?" and the auto industry said "naw, pandemic thing. we're good"

    There's no chip shortage. There's "the auto industry said it didn't need chips and we took them at their word"

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: There's no chip shortage!

      Is there a decent source for this, or is this just your take on it? Because if we've missed a trick on this saga, I'm happy to steer The Reg's coverage in the right direction.

      Edit: Never mind -- looked into it, and will insert a note into the article. Basically, automakers cut their orders and are now scrambling for parts.

      C.

      1. Electronics'R'Us Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: There's no chip shortage!

        The automotive industry forecasts their requirements months ahead and orders appropriately.

        When the pandemic hit, they re-assessed their forecasts and reduced the forward requirements for parts (chips included). This is actually the automotive industry telling their suppliers (who actually make the electronics) of the new forecast.

        Those subs do not want to sit on lots of electronics and so they would have changed their forecasts to their suppliers.

        It turned out the forecasts were wrong, but in the meantime the big fabs replaced the (now unnecessary at the time) devices with lower forecast shipping with other devices for other companies. A fab has to operate 24/7 to be really profitable so that is hardly surprising. I can imagine they went to their big customers saying something like "We have capacity to fabricate <some millions> of <your device> if you want to take the opportunity".

        As those parts they are now making are probably contractually required at certain dates the automotive industry must now wait until a fab has spare capacity.

        There is nothing special about the vast majority of parts used in automotive, incidentally. The only parts that require any special qualification are those in the engine bay, for the most part.

        The parts are often a standard part (might be pre-programmed for them, highly likely) that has a cryptic part number unique to the automotive supplier but in reality a lot of it just standard microcontrollers, memory and other devices.

        A bit of an own goal, but a warning that supply chains can bite you very hard, very easily.

        Changing fabs is a bit of a problem for a lot of devices; TI bought Unitrode in 1999 and agreed to continue using the existing fab for 10 years. After that, they closed the fab and moved production to a more modern fab.

        A part that was in a power supply for a particular head up display from the new batches simply did not work after that. The process was different enough that the part had subtly different characteristics.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: There's no chip shortage!

          Yes but "standard" microcontrollers typically have customised options built-in...

  4. IGotOut Silver badge

    Chip shortage?

    Considering Karcher now have an app to control to power of the pressure washer you are stood right next to, I think I know why there isn't enough capacity.

    1. Giles C Silver badge

      Re: Chip shortage?

      I saw the advert for the other night and thought it was an April fool that hadn’t been taken off.

      You tend to hold the pressure washer Lance with two hands (unless you want to soak yourself) and the hose is usually only a couple of metres long. So why do you need to use an app to change a setting on something almost within reach.

      If they had put the controller on the trigger handle then it might make sense but otherwise it is just a marketing trick.

      1. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Chip shortage?

        >I saw the advert for the other night and thought it was an April fool that hadn’t been taken off.

        Sensorless motor control chips are really cheap. Electronic control allows you to run the motor optimally for the load which for a pump could mean huge power savings -- for example, my old swimming pool pump was a nominal 2Kw induction motor (and the electricity bill reflected this) while its replacement only needs about 400 watts to do the same job. Excess power is dissipated as heat which affects the long term reliability of the motor (alternatively -- allows you to make a cheaper motor).

        Obviously once the marketing department gets wind of this it will be all about how it gives the consumer lots of control over the product. That's just noise. In reality you just want the pump to use just enough power, no more, no less, and the electronics will deliver.

        (I was told that 'small induction motors' are one of the largest uses of electricity, some huge percentage like 60%. Most of that power is wasted.)

  5. druck Silver badge

    Spare capacity

    Does this indicate Intel fabs have spare capacity? Maybe its due to Apple moving to their own silicon, data centres deploying their own ARM based SOCs and even AMD taking a tiny bit more x86 market share.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Spare capacity

      Also Intel is finally moving off 14nm.

  6. DS999 Silver badge

    A pathetic publicity stunt by Intel

    Intel can't fab chips using other company's processes, and it would take longer than the 6-9 months they mention to tape out a design using Intel's process. I might as well offer to fab chips in my basement over the next 6-9 months, it would be exactly as useful as Intel's offer! Maybe after I do I can call my local congresscritter and ask for a few billion in cash to help get my made in America basement fab up and running!

  7. Cynicalmark
    Devil

    It’s our fault

    Stop blaming big tech and shareholders greed. You buy their stuff and upgrade every year to impress those around you. Processors galore churned out can work potentially for decades and we chuck them away. Even sodding kettles fridges and toasters seem to be needing processors these days so you can change pretty colours etc. The world is getting wasteful of all this tech and we really need to step back and reassess what really justifies a process, who is driving a need and why is it designed that way.

    It may not seem to make much sense but why is there a shortage? Because of an artificial ‘need’ to have next best things rather than sticking with old reliable that still works if maintained correctly.

    We have cut back on maintenance to create a disposable society. We are discarding more processors daily than are currently being made. Manufacturers are encouraging this wasteful practice by making repair more difficult or confining it to an expensive ecosystem such as Apple. If one processor develops a fault we chuck the device away and level up with smugness of new shiny shiny. We forget the twenty or so other processors in the device discarded still work and would for decades.

    There are documentaries on mainstream services that will make you feel ashamed to be human. They don’t do anything other than show us the reality of our wasteful hubris.

    Biden does have the capability to raise USA chip maker potential, but why? Is he working for shareholders or just helping solve a problem that eventually will help voters?

    Mad ramble over now. Back to tinfoil hat land for me.

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: It’s our fault

      "Back to tinfoil hat land for me."

      Tinfoil seems kind of low tech. What sort of processor does it use? What's its battery life? It's memory footprint? Is there an OSS version?

      Come on man. It's 2021. Surely we can do better than century old technology.

  8. NickAero

    Do we know any specifics about the ICs they're short of ?

    I am guessing it's the run of the mill CAN bus controllers and eg NXP micros etc

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