Technology

Plans to Expand U.S. Chip Manufacturing Are Running Into Obstacles

In December 2022, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the key maker of the world’s most cutting-edge chips, said it planned to spend $40 billion in Arizona on its first major U.S. hub for semiconductor production.

The much ballyhooed project outside Phoenix — with two new factories, including one with more advanced technology — became a symbol of President Biden’s quest to spur more domestic production of chips, the slices of silicon that help all manner of devices make calculations and store data.

Then last summer, TSMC pushed back initial manufacturing at its first Arizona factory to 2025 from this year, saying local workers lacked expertise in installing some sophisticated equipment. Last month, the company said the second plant wouldn’t produce chips until 2027 or 2028, rather than 2026, citing uncertainty about tech choices and federal funding.

Progress at the Arizona site partly depends on “how much incentives that the U.S. government can provide,” Mark Liu, TSMC’s chairman, said in an investor call.

TSMC is just one of several chip makers running into obstacles with their U.S. expansion plans. Intel, Microchip Technology and others have also adjusted their production schedules, as a sales slump in many kinds of chips pressures the companies to manage their spending on new infrastructure. New chip factories are hugely complex, involving thousands of construction workers, long construction timelines and billions of dollars of machinery.

The delays come as the Biden administration begins dispensing the first major awards from a $39 billion pot of money aimed at building up the U.S. semiconductor industry and reducing the nation’s dependence on technology manufactured in East Asia. On Monday, the administration said it would award $1.5 billion in grants to the chipmaker GlobalFoundries to upgrade and expand facilities in New York and Vermont that make chips for automakers and the defense industry.

But the issues that companies like TSMC face with their projects could undercut this fanfare, raising questions about the prospects of success for President Biden’s industrial policy program. The investments are expected to figure heavily in Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign over the next few months.

“Nothing has failed yet,” said Emily Kilcrease, a senior fellow and the director of the energy, economics and security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “But we’re going to have to see some progress and those factories actually coming online in the next few years for the program to be considered a success.”

The Commerce Department is responsible for handing out federal money from the 2022 CHIPS Act to spur domestic chip production. In addition to the grant to GlobalFoundries, the department has issued two small production grants so far. It is expected to give much larger awards in the billions of dollars to chipmakers like TSMC, Intel, Samsung and Micron in the coming weeks and months.

The government is locked in complex negotiations with these major chipmakers over the amount and timing of the awards. Companies are also still waiting for guidance from the Treasury Department about which investments will qualify for a new tax credit aimed at advanced manufacturing, which had been expected before the end of 2023.

Any delays in the process could hurt the United States as it races to reduce global dependence on chip factories in Taiwan, South Korea and China, analysts said. Rival countries are offering their own incentives to court chip manufacturers. TSMC, for example, plans to add production in Japan and Germany as well as in the United States.

The longer the U.S. government waits to distribute benefits, “the more other geographies are going to snap up these investments, and more leading-edge investments will be made in East Asia,” said Jimmy Goodrich, a senior adviser for technology analysis to the RAND Corporation. “So the clock is ticking.”

A Commerce Department official disputed suggestions that it had been slow in handing out incentives. He said the department was taking time to protect taxpayer interests and push companies to do more to bolster the domestic chip supply chain.

A White House official said the chip companies’ schedule changes were minor adjustments that were common at complex projects like the new production sites. He added that forecasts suggested there would be overwhelming demand for these chips when the facilities started making them.

A Treasury Department spokeswoman said that officials there had provided clarity on tax credits to companies planning investments and were working to issue additional guidance as quickly as possible.

The CHIPS Act authorized grants and other incentives to boost U.S. chip production, plus tax credits for investments in factories and manufacturing equipment. More than 600 companies and organizations had submitted statements of interest in the grants, the Commerce Department said, while it estimates pledges of private investment so far at $235 billion.

But most expansion plans were set when chips were scarce several years ago, after a pandemic-fueled burst of consumer spending on electronic products. That demand dried up, leaving chip makers stuck with big inventories of unsold components and little immediate need for new factories.

“Companies are rethinking how and what and when investments will occur,” said Thomas Sonderman, the chief executive of SkyWater Technology, a Minnesota chip manufacturer that has won Defense Department subsidies and is aiming for CHIPS Act funding.

One chip maker feeling the pinch is Microchip, an Arizona company. Two years ago, Microchip was swamped with orders. It applied for CHIPS Act funding to stoke production and stands to receive $162 million. Yet as sales have slumped, it recently announced two separate two-week factory shutdowns.

Microchip still plans to upgrade its factories in Oregon and Colorado that are set to receive CHIPS Act grants, said Ganesh Moorthy, its chief executive. But ordering machines to increase production capacity will have to wait until business conditions improve.

“We’ve paused on expansion,” Mr. Moorthy said.

Intel, which is expanding production, has also adjusted purchases of costly factory tools. The company recently said it didn’t expect to start manufacturing in Ohio, where it is spending $20 billion on two new factories, in 2025 as it originally expected. The change was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

Still, Intel said neither construction on that site, nor plans to expand in the United States and three other countries, had slowed.

“The strategy is not changing from quarter to quarter,” said Keyvan Esfarjani, the executive vice president who oversees Intel’s manufacturing operations. “We’re staying on course.”

Some chip makers, such as Texas Instruments and Micron Technology, are plowing forward with expanding chip production for competitive reasons. New factories can help make higher-quality chips, more of them and for cheaper.

Micron is pushing ahead with building a $15 billion factory in Boise, Idaho, its hometown, and plans an even bigger manufacturing complex near Syracuse, N.Y., despite a downturn in the market for its memory chips, which store data in devices like smartphones and computers.

Scott Gatzemeier, a Micron vice president overseeing the expansion, said construction projects that took several years should be based on future chip demand rather than current conditions. Renting massive cranes and other equipment and securing construction workers, he added, are big expenses that might need to be repeated if a project is halted.

“Once you start, you don’t want to stop,” he said.

Other chip makers are unwilling to start construction without government money. Mr. Sonderman of SkyWater, for example, said his company’s plans for a $1.8 billion facility in Indiana are contingent on obtaining funds through a portion of the CHIPS Act targeting research.

At TSMC’s Arizona site, unforeseen problems have piled up over the past year.

Last summer, construction unions in the state raised issues about workplace safety and objected to TSMC’s bringing workers from Taiwan to help install sophisticated equipment in the first factory. Delays in installing machines led to an announcement in July about the production delay.

In December, TSMC and the Arizona Building and Construction Trades Council agreed on ground rules at the site for safety, workplace training, site staffing and other issues. In an emailed statement, Mr. Liu, who recently announced plans to retire, sounded hopeful that worker tensions were over.

He acknowledged “challenges” in building the first Phoenix factory, but said TSMC was still “the fastest player” among its peers in completing such projects. While he told analysts in January that the company would delay the start of production at the second factory, also known as a fab, worker skills aren’t likely to be among the reasons.

“We believe the construction of our second fab will be much smoother,” Mr. Liu said. “The workers in Arizona learn things quickly.”