THE Chip War
The Visionary Who Built the $500 Billion Chip Giant: Morris Chang and the Birth of TSMC
In a wood-paneled office overlooking Taipei and the jungle-covered mountains that surround the Taiwanese capital, Morris Chang recently pulled out an old book stamped with technicolor patterns.
Introduction: The Birth of a Semiconductor Giant
The year was 1980, and Morris Chang, a visionary in the world of technology, was about to embark on a journey that would not only alter his career but also transform the global electronics industry. At the age of 54, an age when many consider retirement, Chang had a revelation that would change the semiconductor landscape forever.
The Game-Changing Idea
The insight that Chang gained from the textbook was deceptively simple: the idea that microchips, the brains of computers, could be designed in one place but manufactured somewhere else. This notion went against the standard practice of the semiconductor industry at the time.
The Birth of TSMC: A Game-Changer in Chip Manufacturing
So, Morris Chang decided to act on his vision. He left his adopted country, the United States, and moved to Taiwan to create a groundbreaking company – Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC. TSMC doesn’t design chips, but it has become the world’s largest manufacturer of cutting-edge microprocessors for tech giants like Apple and Nvidia.
TSMC Today: A Global Powerhouse
Today, TSMC is a $500 billion juggernaut, and its chip factories, known as fabs, are critical to the production of advanced chips used in iPhones, cars, supercomputers, and fighter jets. Several countries, including the United States, Japan, and Europe, have sought TSMC’s expertise to build similar facilities. China, too, has invested heavily in an attempt to replicate TSMC’s success.
The Impact on Taiwan and the World
Morris Chang’s unlikely entrepreneurial journey played a pivotal role in Taiwan’s economic growth, restructured the electronics industry, and reshaped the geopolitical landscape. Taiwan, now a technological powerhouse, plays a significant role in global economic growth.
At the twilight of his career, Morris Chang, a man who has always preferred to stay out of the limelight, now finds himself and the company he created in the spotlight. Reflecting on his journey, he remarks, “It doesn’t make me feel particularly good. I would rather stay relatively unknown.”
The Global Technological Cold War
Morris Chang identifies as American, having obtained U.S. citizenship in 1962. However, the company he founded, TSMC, now finds itself at the center of a technological Cold War between the United States and China. Despite the intensifying rivalry for tech leadership, Chang is skeptical about China’s chances of achieving semiconductor supremacy.
The Choke Points
Chang confidently asserts, “We control all the choke points.” He refers collectively to the United States and its chip-making allies, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. According to him, “China can’t really do anything if we want to choke them.”
The Traits of a Visionary: Morris Chang’s Leadership
More than a dozen people who knew Morris Chang describe him as meticulous, stubborn, trusting his best people, and, crucially, possessing boundless ambition. He made daring moves when justified. In the face of TSMC’s stumble after the 2008 financial crisis, he returned as chief executive at the age of 77 to take the reins once again.
Present at the Industry’s Creation
Chris Miller, an associate professor of international history, describes Morris Chang as “probably the only person left in the chip industry who was present at the creation of the industry itself.” Not only is he still in the industry, but he remains at the center and top of it, an extraordinary feat.
Shaping the Future of Technology
To understand the future of the tech industry, it’s essential to view it through Morris Chang’s eyes and understand the bets he made when others didn’t. Unlike today’s tech moguls who often engage in public spats, Chang has been the quiet force behind TSMC’s success, much like the owner of a casino.
Early Life and Career
Born in 1931 in a China on the brink of war, Morris Chang experienced a tumultuous childhood. He moved to the United States in 1949, attended prestigious universities, and began his career in technology. A stroke of luck led him to the semiconductor industry, where he discovered his passion.
The Road to TSMC
Chang’s path to TSMC was paved with critical experiences. His time at Texas Instruments exposed him to the fast-paced and unforgiving nature of the semiconductor industry. In the 1980s, while working for General Instrument, he encountered the concept of designing chips without manufacturing them, a trend that would shape the industry’s future.
The Birth of TSMC
In 1985, Chang, at the age of 54, left the United States and founded TSMC in Taiwan. His vision was clear – TSMC would make chips for other companies, not design them. This decision set TSMC on a path to success as it focused on manufacturing and attracted a global market.
TSMC’s Global Reach
From the start, Chang had a global perspective for TSMC. He introduced professional management systems and fostered an international environment within the company. As semiconductors became more complex and expensive to produce, TSMC’s economies of scale allowed it to challenge industry giants like Intel and Samsung.
The Apple Partnership: A Turning Point
In 2010, Morris Chang received a call that would shape TSMC’s destiny. Apple, in search of a new chip manufacturer, turned to TSMC. After months of negotiations, TSMC secured the contract, despite Apple’s demanding terms. This partnership made Apple TSMC’s largest client, accounting for about 20% of the company’s revenue.
A Legacy of Leadership
Morris Chang’s impact on the semiconductor industry goes beyond TSMC. He played a crucial role in making Nvidia, a pioneer in artificial intelligence chips, into a global leader. By manufacturing Nvidia’s chips, TSMC contributed to the A.I. revolution in the United States.
Looking to the Future
At the age of 92, Morris Chang remains active and concerned about global politics and the economy. While he worries about potential conflicts between the United States and China over Taiwan, he believes the probability is low. He’s confident that TSMC’s technological leadership will endure.
Morris Chang’s journey from an uncertain childhood to the pinnacle of the tech industry is a testament to his vision and determination. His creation of TSMC has reshaped the global semiconductor landscape and paved the way for future technological advancements.
1. What is TSMC?
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the world’s largest manufacturer of cutting-edge microprocessors and a key player in the semiconductor industry. It focuses on manufacturing chips for various tech giants.
2. How did Morris Chang change the semiconductor industry?
Morris Chang’s idea of manufacturing microchips separately from their design,
a departure from the industry norm, revolutionized the semiconductor sector. This innovative approach allowed for a more efficient and specialized manufacturing process.
3. Why is TSMC’s role in chip manufacturing significant?
TSMC’s role in chip manufacturing is crucial because it provides a wide range of tech companies with access to cutting-edge semiconductor technology without needing to establish their manufacturing facilities. This outsourcing model has driven innovation and reduced costs.
4. What is the impact of the TSMC-Apple partnership?
The partnership between TSMC and Apple has been a game-changer. TSMC became Apple’s primary chip manufacturer, securing a significant portion of its revenue. This collaboration has allowed Apple to maintain its competitive edge in the smartphone industry.
5. What is the future of the semiconductor industry?
The semiconductor industry is poised for continued growth and innovation. With the ever-increasing demand for advanced chips in various technologies, companies like TSMC will play a critical role in shaping the industry’s future.
Morris Chang’s legacy in the world of technology and semiconductor manufacturing is an inspiring tale of vision, determination, and resilience. His contributions have not only transformed TSMC into a global powerhouse but have also had a far-reaching impact on the entire semiconductor industry. As the world continues to advance in technology, TSMC’s role in manufacturing cutting-edge chips remains at the forefront of innovation.