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Intel’s Success Came With Making Its Own Chips. Until Now

Intel’s Success Came With Making Its Own Chips. Until Now


By Asa Fitch
Nov. 6, 2020 4:11 pm ET WSJ




Intel Corp., more than any other company, represents the historical silicon in “Silicon Valley.” It has held its reign not only by designing compelling new circuitry but also by etching it into silicon at its own factories.

It was orthodoxy inside Intel. To thrive, it had to remain the maker of its flagship chips that are the brains of computers—long after many rivals had outsourced manufacturing and stuck to design.

So on July 23, when Chief Executive Bob Swan on an earnings call said Intel would consider outsourcing the manufacture of some of its most advanced chips, it was a milestone in the story of America’s losing its manufacturing primacy.



Intel CEO Bob Swan in January.
PHOTO: STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS
Intel’s plants had stumbled for the second time in a row in making the circuitry that underlies a new generation of chips called central processing units, or CPUs, each with tinier transistors than the one before. It had needed to scrap much of what its factories had made during trial runs and push back the promised delivery time frame. Intel would now reconsider how to make its chips that hit the market in the year 2023 and later, Mr. Swan said.

The company might end up outsourcing them, might keep making them in-house, or might use a new approach of processing a chip partly itself and farming out certain other processes on the chip, Mr. Swan said. Intel saw the decision, he said, “as a sign of strength, not as a sign of weakness, that gives us much more flexibility to make the decisions on where is the most effective way to build our products.”

The Santa Clara, Calif., company’s concession that it has hit the factory wall—that the circuitry has gotten so small it may not be able to economically build some of the most important chips itself—reverberates beyond Silicon Valley.


“Intel’s inability to solve this problem,” said David Yoffie, an Intel director for 29 years until 2018, “is something that the country is going to feel as a loss.”

Intel declined to make Mr. Swan available for an interview, citing his earlier pledge to give an update on the strategy in the coming months.

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Harvey Yan

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