The semiconductor supply crunch two years ago had sent unprecedented shockwaves through auto production. In the meantime, the jams have largely dissipated. So now is a good time for the chip and auto industries to reflect on what happened and to consider together how to avoid such problems in the future. The panel discussion "Mastering the Semiconductor Chain" at the 27th Automobil-Elektronik Kongress in Ludwigsburg brought together the different points of view.
Experts from the entire value chain were represented, from OEM BMW to tier-one supplier Continental and IDMs Infineon as well as NXP to TSMC as a representative of the semiconductor contract manufacturers. The panel was moderated by Alfred Vollmer, an electrical engineer who is editor-in-chief of the German trade publication AUTOMOBIL-ELEKTRONIK.
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In hindsight, the reasons for the crisis-like development at the time are relatively obvious. "We underestimated the surge in electronic content in cars. And we didn't have good practice in dealing with this kind of standstill," recalls Jean-Francois Tarabbia, who is responsible for E/E architectures at Continental. Fearing they would not get enough components delivered, OEMs arguably overcorrected their demand figures upward. The consequences extended far beyond the material shortage of chips. From the perspective of BMW's head of electronics, Christoph Grote, there was a lack of transparency across the entire value chain. "What was really bad about it was that trust in the reported figures suffered." He really never wants to see anything like that happen again. Grote also immediately had a suggestion on how this trust could be strengthened again: "Realistic (demand) figures should be rewarded, inflated demand should be, well, punished somehow," he reflected. "We should learn to be honest."
That might be necessary, because there are still supply bottlenecks. Take power semiconductors, for example, explained Peter Schiefer, head of Infineon's automotive business. "All types of power semiconductors are in short supply," and that won't change over the next few years, he said. The same applies to analog/mixed-signal chips, which are used heavily in automotive applications in particular, he said. In order to expand production capacities in this area, Infineon recently announced an investment of five billion euros for its Dresden site.
Lars Reger, CTO of NXP, was also unprepared for the unexpected ups and downs in order volumes from the automotive industry. At the beginning of the crisis, for example, automotive customers had in some cases even returned reserved production capacities - only to frantically try to correct this later. This situation has now been largely defused, but Reger cannot fully follow the advice of Paul de Bot, head of TSMC Europe, to switch all chip designs to newer, smaller technology nodes if possible. "Not everything can be shrunk," Reger said. "If someone tried to redesign a BMS chip to 5nm, I'd be retired before they were done."
Does this clarify the complexities enough to assume? There was no consensus on that point. "Industry understands," Paul de Bot said, but "I'm not so sure about politics." Infineon's Peter Schiefer also believes the industry has understood. "But that doesn't mean the solutions are clear," Schiefer said. Jean-François Tarabbia of Continental also sees a growing understanding within the industry. "But we don't have a solution yet," Tarabbia feared, while expressing hope that policymakers would create the necessary framework. Grote disagreed. "The bottleneck is not so much in politics," Grote said. "We need to get this clear within the industry." Tarrabia even expressed his conviction that sooner or later such a crisis situation would arise again. "The probability of that is one," the Continental executive worried. In contrast, Paul de Bot of TSMC tuned into more optimistic tones: "The most important thing is that we know each other. If there is a problem, we can pick up the phone." However, he admitted, only on one condition: Transparency is key; without it, nothing will work.