Chang’s Fabless Chips

Not surprising, perhaps, that the Semiconductor Industry Association would give an award to long-time industry veteran Morris Chang. But the founder of Taiwan Semi played an absolutely crucial role in the history of computers, IT, communications, and anything that touches silicon.

TSMC, of course, popularized the idea of manufacturing chips that are designed by others. Such companies, called foundries, became essential partners to design specialists that save money by outsourcing production.

What people tend to overlook is how the Chinese-born engineer, who spent 25 years at Texas Instruments, helped propel a big American comeback. In the 1980s, Japanese chip makers used manufacturing muscle to hammer companies like Intel and TI. The U.S. manufacturers gradually rebounded, but newcomers such as Qualcomm, Broadcom and Nvidia — which might not exist without foundries — were an equally important factor. 

With the publication of his Introduction to VLSI Systems in the late 1970s, Carver Mead predicted this “fabless” model, splitting the design and manufacturing functions of previously integrated semiconductor firms. Mead had performed the research for Gordon Moore’s profound prediction in 1965 that integrated circuits could — and would — continue doubling in transistor density every 18 months or so for decades into the future. Mead even named this observation-prediction “Moore’s Law.”

Companies that remained integrated all these years — like Intel — have continued to lead in manufacturing technology, finding ingenious ways to sustain Moore’s Law. But the breadth and creativity and economic power of the silicon revolution would not have happened without Morris Chang’s fabless model.

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