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Friday, March 25, 2011

Shuttered Japanese Chip Makers Threaten IT

  • The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have shut down 25 percent of the global semiconductor raw materials production, threatening to cause shortages and price hikes in everything from smartphones to supercomputers.
  • The raw silicon wafers that chip makers use as a foundation for their memories, logic and processors are no longer being manufactured across Japan as result of the earthquake, tsunami and continuing seismic aftershocks.
    Last week, Intel and Qualcomm tried to assure worried stockholders, claiming that Japan's Tohoku earthquake would not create shortages. Analysts nevertheless predict that the current drop in semiconductor manufacturing capacity in Japan will soon create shortages in many electronic product supply chains.
    The two Japanese manufacturers that supply a large portion of the silicon wafers used to fabricate semiconductor memories, logic and processors are closed down. According to IHS iSuppli, silicon wafer fabrication at Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. Ltd.'s Shirakawa facility and the Utsunomiya plant of MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. have halted, shutting down a quarter of the world's supply of raw silicon wafers.

    Global inventories held by semiconductor suppliers surged to their highest level in two and a half years during the fourth quarter of 2010. (Source: IHS iSuppli)
    The Shirakawa facility produces the state-of-the-art 12-inch silicon wafers used to produce memory chips including the flash memory used by solid-state drives (SSDs) and the dynamic random-access memories (DRAM) used by all processors from PCs to supercomputers. IHS iSuppli claims that Shin-Etsu's Shirakawa plant alone is responsible for a fifth of the global supply of raw silicon wafers used for semiconductor fabrication, and that plant managers claim to be transferring some 12-inch manufacturing capabilities to other facilities, but gave no timeline on how long that might take. Meanwhile, MEMC's Utsunomiya plant, responsible for 5 percent of worldwide silicon wafer production, gave no indication on how long it might take to restore manufacturing.
    Printed circuit boards (PCBs) were hit even harder by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, according to IHS iSuppli. The firm claims manufacturing has stopped for nearly 70 percent of the copper-clad laminate (CCL) used for PCBs in everything from smartphones to supercomputers. In particular, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company Inc. and Hitachi Kasei Polymer Co. Ltd. said their manufacturing operations were shuttered, but that they were trying to resume manufacturing before their inventory of two weeks' worth of CCL ran out.
    Gigantic semiconductor chip maker Renesas Electronics Corp. reports that its total wafer capacity is down 40 percent due to stoppages at its Tsugaru, Takasaki and Kofu fabs, which produce discrete and analog devices, as well as at its Naka facility, where system-on-chip and microcontroller are made. Likewise, Fujitsu is reporting that shortages of electricity, gas and raw wafers have caused it to shut down half of its fabs for three to four weeks. Elpida Memory Inc. reports that half of its capacity at its Yamagata facility has been damaged with no estimate for how long it will take to repair.
    One bright spot is AKM Semiconductor, maker of the e-compass inside the iPad 2. AKM said it had a fab in Nobeoka (outside the affected area) that can manufacture its e-compasses. According to IHS iSuppli, AKM also said that it is prepared to transfer manufacturing to an off-shore foundry if shortages start to hinder its e-compass manufacturing in Japan.

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