“Towards the infinitely small and beyond! »

PIt was a proud moment for the President of the United States this Tuesday, December 6 in Phoenix, Arizona. He comes to inaugurate the construction site of a state-of-the-art electronic chip manufacturing facility by the world leader in the sector, the Taiwanese TSMC. An investment of 12 billion dollars (11.4 billion euros) and more than 2,000 jobs at stake. And suddenly, the entrepreneurs of the Chinese nationalist island pull out their Christmas present. In the end, it will not be 12 but 40 billion that will be invested in the Arizona desert, with a second factory coming out of the hat. And the latter will use the most advanced technology in the world.

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To judge the performance of a chip, we measure the width of its engraving. It is this which determines the number of transistors, and therefore its computing capacity. Currently, the thinnest produced is 5 nanometers, or 5 billionths of a meter, 20 million times thinner than a hair. TSMC and its Korean rival Samsung are the only manufacturers in the world to achieve this feat. Both are testing 3-nanometer chips for mass production in 2023. In sunny Phoenix, TSMC’s president claimed his first US factory will eventually produce 4-nanometer chips instead of 5 – the second will target 3 nanometers.

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Tel Buzz l’Eclair

Joe Biden can be jubilant, America is catching up at high speed with its industrial backwardness in the most sophisticated manufacturing field on the planet with its extreme miniaturization. Like Buzz Lightyear, the cartoon cosmonaut Toy Story, he could exclaim: “Towards the infinitely small and beyond!” Beyond that, it’s the reconquest of strategic independence in this key area. It’s not won yet. The production of 5 and 3 nanometer processors will not take place, at best, until 2024 for the first and 2026 for the second. On these dates, TSMC will be upgraded to the next generation in its factories in Taiwan.

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Its American production will then represent less than 10% of its total manufacturing capacity, while its largest customer, Apple, has its factory specially dedicated by TSMC in Taiwan. The Asian firm ensures that the installation in the United States is expensive, in spite of the subsidies, and complicated. She had difficulty finding engineers and then had to send them to Taiwan for a year and a half to train them. Time and consistency in effort are the real barrier in this top-of-the-range profession, just as much as technology. A skill that is cultivated and which we can see today in France that it is no longer there in certain exceptional sectors such as nuclear power. The reconquest of know-how is a very long process.

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