Semiconductor pricing – Chip cost drivers and trends

Semiconductors are the backbone of modern electronics, powering everything from smartphones to advanced medical devices and autonomous vehicles. The semiconductor industry has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, fueled by the increasing demand for electronic devices. 

However, the pricing dynamics of semiconductors have become a critical focal point, with multitude of factors influencing costs and market trends. Deciphering semiconductor pricing has evolved into an art backed by extensive data analysis.

Current Trends in Semiconductor Pricing

Global Chip Shortage:

  • The ongoing global chip shortage has had a profound impact on semiconductor pricing. High demand for electronic devices, coupled with disruptions in the supply chain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a scarcity of chips, contributing to increased prices. The shortage has also been a contributing factor in geopolitical restrictions such as the US-imposed advanced semiconductor shipment ban on China 

Increased Complexity in Design:

  • The growing complexity of not only the semiconductor design(Finfet, GAA, Nanosheets, TSV) but also packaging design (3D, 2.5D, CoWoS etc.), especially as manufacturers transition to smaller technology nodes has led to higher production costs. This increased complexity often translates to higher prices for the end consumer.
wafer price by technology node. Semiconductor cost, tsmc pricing. wafer cost
Wafer prices are skyrocketing as tech nodes get smaller and yield becomes a key factor

Rising Investments in Research and Development:

  • To maintain a competitive edge and to keep pace with the latest needs in terms of AI advancements the semiconductor manufacturers are investing heavily in research and development. While this fosters innovation, it also adds to the overall cost structure, influencing pricing.
R&D cost for semiconductors. Semiconductor cost, tsmc pricing
R&D costs are increasing exponentially due to technological challenges and increasing software and IP costs

Negotiating semiconductor pricing is a complex process, involving a deep understanding of various cost components and market dynamics. A comprehensive ‘should cost’ analysis for the intended semiconductor acquisition typically marks the initial step in the negotiation process.

Key components of a Semiconductor Cost Model:

1. Research and Development (R&D) Costs:

  • Design Complexity: The intricacy of semiconductor chip design influences R&D costs. Advanced technologies and smaller nanometer processes often require more significant investments in engineering and R&D.
  • Intellectual Property (IP) Licensing: If a company uses third-party intellectual property or licenses specific technologies, these costs need to be factored into the overall chip cost.
  • Software expenses for design: The utilization of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software constitutes a substantial part of annual R&D expenditures, amounting to millions annually.
semiconductor R&D cost breakdown. Semiconductor cost, tsmc pricing
A typical cost breakdown for sub 10nm R&D costs. Software and verification are major cost drivers

2. Raw Materials:

  • Silicon Wafers: Silicon wafers are a primary raw material in semiconductor manufacturing. The size, purity, and quality of the wafers contribute to their cost.
  • Metals: Use of metals such as Aluminum and Copper, precious metals like Gold, Palladium, and Platinum  directly affects the overall cost structure
  • Chemicals and Gases: Various chemicals and gasses are used in the semiconductor fabrication process. The cost of these materials can fluctuate based on market conditions and supply chain dynamics.

3. Manufacturing Process:

  • Lithography and Etching: Cutting-edge lithography techniques like DUV, EUV contribute to manufacturing costs. Advanced etching processes, essential for creating intricate features on the chip, also incur expenses.
  • Yield Rates: The percentage of usable chips obtained from the manufacturing process affects the overall cost. Higher yield rates lead to lower per-unit manufacturing costs.
  • Metrology and inspection: Metrology tools (both inline and failure analysis) also need to innovate at a great pace to keep up with the advancements in semiconductor processing. These advanced metrology tools only get more expensive with every technology node transition.
semiconductor process steps. chip cost, tsmc pricing. semiconductor pricing
Increase in process steps due to techniques like double patterning and increase in inspection and metrology steps

4. Labor Costs:

  • Skilled Workforce: The semiconductor industry relies on a highly skilled workforce. Labor costs encompass salaries, benefits, and training expenses for engineers and technicians involved in the production process. In addition to that, labor costs vary by different geographical locations which adds to the complexity of semiconductor pricing. 

5. Equipment and Capital Expenditures:

  • Fabrication Equipment: High-tech machinery, including photolithography equipment and wafer processing tools, constitutes a significant portion of the overall cost. Depreciation and maintenance costs are essential considerations.
  • Semiconductor Fab Cleanroom: Building and maintaining a semiconductor fabrication plant and its cleanroom facilities with controlled environments is crucial for semiconductor manufacturing and contributes immensely to operating expenses.
fab build cost for semiconductors. chip cost
Only a handful of companies in the world has the budget to build fabs for leading edge nodes

6. Testing and Quality Assurance:

  • Testing Equipment: Rigorous testing processes are essential to ensure the functionality and reliability of semiconductor chips. The cost of testing equipment and quality control measures should be factored into the analysis.

7. Packaging and Assembly:

  • Packaging Materials: The materials used for packaging, such as lead frames or organic substrates, impact the overall cost. Advanced packaging technologies like 2.5D packaging, 3D packaging, packaging with Local Silicon Interconnect(LSI) etc.,  can contribute to higher costs but may offer enhanced performance.
  • Assembly Processes: Costs associated with assembling and packaging the final semiconductor products, including labor and machinery expenses, are critical components.
chip packaging, semiconductor pricing, chip cost, tsmc price
Examples of advanced packaging technologies. Source: KLA

8. Supply Chain and Logistics:

  • Global Supply Chain Management: Managing a global supply chain introduces logistical complexities. Semiconductor manufacturing involves Shipping chips back and forth between different cities/countries for bumping, wafer sort, packaging, final test etc., In addition to these, there are customs duties, and transportation costs which also contribute to the semiconductor chip’s overall cost. 

Other Factors Influencing Price

Beyond the fundamental cost drivers listed above, several other factors can impact semiconductor pricing, requiring careful consideration by both buyers and sellers. Below is a summarized list of such factors:

  • Supply & Demand: The cyclical nature of the industry, with periods of high demand and oversupply, dictates price fluctuations.
  • Geopolitics: Trade tensions and policies can disrupt supply chains and impact prices, as seen with US restrictions on China and Taiwan.
  • Negotiation: Buyers’ bargaining power, supplier costs, market conditions, and product features influence negotiation dynamics.
  • Ethics: Environmental impact, labor exploitation, and potential for price gouging require responsible practices and transparent pricing models.

A thorough cost analysis of semiconductor chips requires a holistic examination of the entire production lifecycle. Semiconductor manufacturers must continually assess and optimize each component to enhance efficiency, reduce costs, and maintain competitiveness in this rapidly evolving industry. 

At Kaizoft, our premier ‘Should Cost’ analysis tool is meticulously crafted by industry-leading experts possessing extensive knowledge in key factors influencing chip pricing. Our tool comprehensively considers the intricate determinants shaping costs for major players such as TSMC, Intel, Samsung, Nvidia, AMD, and others. Connect with us to explore how our expertise can assist you in achieving optimal cost efficiency

Sources:

  1. Entegris, “Examining Chip Manufacturing Challenges for Advanced Logic Architecture”, https://blog.entegris.com/examining-chip-manufacturing-challenges-for-advanced-logic-architecture
  2. Wccftech, “TSMC 3nm Wafer Pricing Revealed”, https://wccftech.com/tsmc-3nm-wafer-pricing-revealed-20000-us-25-price-increase-over-5nm-next-gen-cpus-gpus-expensive/
  3. Digitimes, “Industry watch: The expensive semiconductor game”, https://www.digitimes.com/news/a20211221VL200.html
  4. Extremetech, “As Chip Design Costs Skyrocket, 3nm Process Node Is in Jeopardy”, https://www.extremetech.com/computing/272096-3nm-process-node
  5. Semiengineering, “Advanced Packaging’s Next Wave”, https://semiengineering.com/advanced-packagings-next-wave/

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