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Semiconductor Makers Struggle to Catch Up

The shortage has prompted calls for federal funding.

Executives from Intel, IBM, Texas Instruments say the U.S. tech sector is “at risk.” The domestic electronics sector has long decried the long, slow migration of semiconductor manufacturing from the U.S. to overseas factories — and warned of the potential implications for both commercial supply chains and national security.

But just in case policymakers weren’t completely convinced by pleas from some of the world’s leading technology giants, a global pandemic stepped in to make them pay attention.

As COVID-19 swept around the globe last winter and spring, automakers were forced to idle their plants just as millions of newly home-bound workers began depending on electronics to keep them connected. Semiconductor makers, naturally, diverted wafers and chips originally intended for vehicles to other, more in-demand sectors.

Now, roughly a year later, the auto industry has made a dramatic recovery — and semiconductor makers haven’t been able to catch up. Numerous automakers have been forced to cut back on production due to a lack of parts, and one estimate expects the shortage to make a $60 billion dent in the global auto sector.

The Semiconductor Industry Association — a trade group representing nearly all of the nation’s semiconductor industry, including Intel, IBM and Texas Instruments — says “bold action” is needed to address the challenges facing the sector, and that the U.S.’s leadership in tech is “at risk.” In a letter to the Biden administration, the group called for “substantial” financial incentives for semiconductor manufacturing to be included in forthcoming economic recovery and infrastructure plans.

Congress approved subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing and research last year, but lawmakers have yet to determine how much funding should be allocated. The White House on Thursday promised to help address the shortage — likely in the form of an executive order — but for an industry with lead times lasting months, it will likely be of little consequence to automakers who expect to lose billions in sales.

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