The statement, conveyed as the third bullet point of a quarterly earnings release, was both mind-numbingly technical and inscrutably terse—almost to the point of meaninglessness for anyone who was not a professional investor or analyst. “Accelerating 10nm product transition,” it read, “7nm product transition delayed versus prior expectations.”
To those who do make a living scrutinizing financial releases, this was disastrous. It meant that Intel Corp. was struggling to produce its latest and greatest chips. The company had promised it would be manufacturing chips with transistors that have dimensions as small as 7 nanometers, or 7 billionths of a meter, with 2021 as the most recent deadline. The smaller the transistors, the more you can cram together, which makes for faster or more efficient processors. The delay meant that Intel would be stuck selling an older generation of chips for another year.
Intel has been a jewel of American manufacturing since the late 1960s, when Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore started the company in Mountain View, Calif., and in doing so helped create the modern chip industry and Silicon Valley itself. The company, now based in Santa Clara, has suffered delays in the past, but Intel’s engineers have always ensured each setback was short-lived.
By July 2020 things had changed. During the conference call that followed the earnings release, Intel’s unassuming chief executive officer, Bob Swan, indicated that the company’s futuristic chip fabrication plants—“fabs”—might never be able to catch up. Instead the company was considering using contractors to build the 7nm chips. “To the extent that we need to use somebody else’s process technology, and we call those contingency plans, we will be prepared to do that,” Swan said in response to the first question from an analyst.
His words were halting and coldly technical, but every analyst on the call heard this and thought the same thing: Holy crap. Swan’s suggestion was possibly the most radical thing to happen to Intel in its 52-year history. Intel had climbed to the top of the more than $400 billion-a-year chipmaking industry by designing sophisticated processors and mastering the complicated techniques needed to produce hundreds of millions of them to power the world’s computers—doing all that in-house.
This technical prowess made Intel the leader in chips and a key part of the mythology of 20th-century American capitalism. Yes, most electronics were made in factories in Asia, but that was low-margin, low-wage work that the U.S. didn’t want anyway. Intel’s American factories, on the other hand, made the most sophisticated, highest-margin components for those devices. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all visited Intel fabs, and “Intel Inside” was emblazoned on desktops and laptops the world over. During the 1990s, at the height of the company’s cultural cachet, Intel ran television commercials featuring clean-room workers in full Tyvek, disco dancing to Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. The plan Swan suggested would repudiate that legacy and possibly damage the leadership of the U.S. in high-end manufacturing.
Before Swan could follow through on the outsourcing plan, the company changed course again, replacing him with Pat Gelsinger, who’d been Intel’s chief technology officer and who was still very much a believer in its manufacturing prowess. In March he announced a plan to spend $20 billion on new U.S. factories that could make chips for other semiconductor companies that want to outsource their production. He presented this plan to make Intel into a contract manufacturer, or what’s known as a foundry, as a statement of his turnaround ambitions. “Intel is back,” Gelsinger told journalists. “The old Intel is the new Intel. We’re going to be leaders in the market, and we’re going to satisfy the new foundry customers, because the world needs more semiconductors, and we’re going to step into that gap in a powerful and meaningful way.”
Even today, even in its current diminished form—having lost the title of most valuable American chip company to Nvidia Corp., which designs graphics processors and outsources most of its manufacturing to Asia—Intel still controls about 80% of the computer processor market, with an even bigger share in servers, the powerful machines that run data centers. But Intel’s biggest customers, including Amazon.com, Apple, and Microsoft, have all begun designing their own chips and hiring outsourced manufacturers to make them. Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., another so-called fabless chip company, has been selling 7nm components for months. That’s caused many to question whether, despite Gelsinger’s promises of a restoration, the company can recover from its production stumbles. “Progress on the manufacturing side has utterly come off the rails,” says JoAnne Feeney, a partner at Advisors Capital Management LLC and a longtime chip analyst.
Intel’s predicament didn’t come about overnight. It’s been a consequence of a decade’s worth of missteps—including a failure to break into chips for smartphones—and cultural decay that blinded the company to serious shortcomings, according to more than two dozen current and former employees, most of whom asked not to be identified for fear of retribution or jeopardizing their job prospects. It’s also a function of global shifts that gave rise to Asian manufacturing giants such as Samsung Electronics Co. and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. These companies increasingly sit at the center of the industry, and it’s their chips that are increasingly finding their way “inside” the most advanced devices.
Although founders Moore and Noyce were among those who created the first semiconductors back when the San Francisco Peninsula was better known for its almond orchards than for its silicon products, the person at the center of Intel’s rise was Andy Grove. The Hungarian-born engineer was Moore and Noyce’s first hire and served as the company’s CEO from 1987 to 1998. Grove’s Intel, which would influence a generation’s worth of management thinking, prized discipline, intellectual honesty, and focus.
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