Intel is ramping up its planned investments in existing semiconductor facilities, and it’s willing to build a European foundry if the EU kicks in a lot of cash. On Monday, Intel announced that it will invest $3.5 billion dollars in foundry upgrades to its facility in New Mexico.
These new upgrades to the company’s facilities in Rio Rancho will allow the Rio Rancho plant to increase its use of Foveros at the facility. Foveros is the name for Intel’s new 3D interconnect technology that allows the manufacturer to build new kinds of processors. It’s currently used for Lakefield and Alder Lake is widely expected to tap the capability as well.
Intel expects the new upgrades to add about 700 jobs on-site over the next three years. Interestingly, the company has also said it will no longer focus on buybacks to the same degree. “We will not be anywhere near as focused on buybacks going forward as we have in the past,” Gelsinger told 60 Minutes over the weekend. “That’s been reviewed as part of my coming into the company, agreed upon with the board of directors.”
This $3.5B expenditure is in addition to the $20 billion Intel will invest in building new foundries in Arizona. Intel has now committed to over $23.5 billion in new foundry construction and upgrades over and above its typical yearly R&D budget.
European Foundry News
Intel has also confirmed it’s willing to build a leading-edge fab in Europe to help the EU bloc hit its target of producing 20 percent of the world’s semiconductors by 2030, but the company reportedly wants $9.7 billion in subsidies to do so.
The $9.7B figure was reported by Reuters via Politico Europe, but Intel apparently later disputed giving a specific figure, and we can’t find an interview on Politico Europe itself. Reuters, however, is still quoting $9.7 billion.
Gelsinger met with European Commissioner Thierry Breton last week to discuss potentially building a fab in continental Europe as opposed to further expansion of the foundry it operates in Ireland. Intel Leixlip currently builds 14nm chips, but the facility is being upgraded for 7nm manufacturing once that node is ready. Any facility Intel built in Europe would presumably target 5nm or below, depending on how quickly the foundry came online.
The Intel CEO has previously hinted that Germany might be a good location for a foundry. “Geopolitically, if you’re in Europe, you want to be in continental Europe,” Gelsinger reportedly told the European press. “We think of Germany as a good candidate — not the only, but a good candidate — for where we might build our fabrication capabilities.” Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands are also said to be candidate countries.
I’ve previously criticized Samsung for requesting enormous tax relief in Texas in exchange for potentially building a $17B foundry there, so it’s only fair to address that. One major difference between Texas and Europe is that Texas’s tax burden is low — one of the lowest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. I can’t speak to the exact situation in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, or Luxembourg, but European taxes are generally higher.
Intel appears to be asking for larger subsidies than Samsung was, but Samsung was specifically asking to be exempt from school taxes — and Texas is legally required to provide the school district funding Samsung should be paying, meaning this particular subsidy is a direct wealth transfer from taxpayers to Samsung. It’s not a question of not having the money in the coffers because a tax wasn’t levied. The money has to be paid, whether Samsung pays the bill or not.
Subsidies can take a lot of forms, and Europe’s tax and regulatory burden is higher than the United States in general, so I don’t know if what Intel is asking for is usual for a European context. It’s also not clear if such subsidies would guarantee European companies fab space for production in Intel’s facilities, or if there would be other considerations for European customers.
Actually building enough resilience into the silicon supply chain to deal with disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic would require a different business model than the one foundries currently use, and state subsidies are one way governments could compensate a foundry for leaving a certain percentage of fab space deliberately idle to deal with sudden demand spikes. Nothing of the sort has been publicly floated, but any deal between the EU and Intel for a fab is also obviously in very early stages. There’s also been some pushback to the idea that Europe needs a leading-edge foundry in the first place.
Any deal to build a foundry in the EU would presumably be for a fairly large facility, and large fabs are quite expensive. $10-$20B in construction costs wouldn’t be unusual in the US depending on the size of the facility.
Update (5/4/2020): We’ve gotten some clarification on Gelsinger’s initial remarks to Politico. The interview was only distributed via newsletter and as part of Politico’s paid service. As such, we cannot link to it.
Politico has issued a correction to its own initial coverage. The correction clarifies that Gelsinger did not name a specific dollar value that Intel would accept. After noting that Intel would want to build an initial facility worth roughly $20 billion USD, the CEO observed that South Korea and Taiwan typically provide 40 percent subsidies to operate a fab in the United States, while mainland China offers 50 percent subsidies. He then called for Europe to fund semiconductor foundries at a similar level, but did not state a dollar amount.
Intel has additionally released a statement: “With regards to EU semiconductor incentives, Intel has not requested a specific amount. However, as our CEO has said, EU leaders must make the necessary investments to ensure a vibrant semiconductor industry, build resilient supply and expand innovation for the long term. Currently, it can cost 20-40% more to operate a FAB in Europe or the US compared to Asian countries. As we look across Europe and the US to help balance the global supply chain of silicon, we are encouraged by the response that we have received from government leaders.”
Feature image is Intel’s Rio Rancho facility in New Mexico. Photo by Intel.