Apple CEO Tim Cook said yesterday that TSCM Arizona plants would see Apple Silicon made in America. This appeared to contradict earlier reports that the US plants would always remain a step behind the most advanced chip tech TSMC uses in Taiwan.
On the face of it, Cook’s statement would seem to trump earlier “inside source” reports – but the stated timings are problematic, leaving open two distinct possibilities…
What have earlier reports said?
There have been conflicting reports, right from the start, but the more recent ones have been pretty consistent in suggesting that the Arizona plants would not use the latest TSMC chipmaking tech – that is, the smallest process.
Bloomberg reported last month that the chips made for Apple would be legacy ones, mostly for PR purposes, so that the Cupertino company could proudly proclaim that it was using chips made in America. This implied things like power management chips, rather than A-series or M-series processors.
The Financial Times said only yesterday that the Arizona plants would remain one step behind the latest process used in Taiwan, meaning that it could never make the latest Apple Silicon chips, which would always use the latest process.
What has TSMC said?
Various things at various times! But let’s look at the latest statement:
TSMC today announced that in addition to TSMC Arizona’s first fab, which is scheduled to begin production of N4 process technology in 2024, TSMC has also started the construction of a second fab which is scheduled to begin production of 3nm process technology in 2026.
For simplicity, we’ll leave aside the debate about whether the N4 process is really 4nm, and call it 4nm. So, in Arizona:
This compares with Taiwanese output:
So based on TSMC’s own statements, the Arizona plants will lag behind by two to three years. This would mean that they could not produce the very latest Apple Silicon in America.
What did Tim Cook say?
Cook said this:
Over the past several years, the progress we’ve made with Apple Silicon has transformed our devices. It has unlocked new levels of performance for our users, enabling them to do things they could never do before.
When you stop and think about it, it’s extraordinary what chip technology can achieve. Now, thanks to the hard work of so many people, these chips can be proudly stamped ‘Made in America.’
One point worth noting is that while Apple invented the phrase Apple Silicon to describe the M-series chips that replaced Intel ones in Macs, it could reasonably extend the definition to A-series chips used in iPhones and iPads too. They are, after all, the same thing: Chips designed by Apple and custom-made by TSMC. So Cook could be referring to A-series as well as M-series chips.
Butt which Apple Silicon will be made in America?
So, the Arizona plants lag two to three years behind the latest chip technology used in Apple devices, but they will lead to Apple Silicon made in America. This leaves one certainty, and two possibilities.
The certainty is that the Arizona plants will not make Apple Silicon chips for the company’s latest and most advanced devices. The two possibilities are these…
Chips for older devices
First, the US plants could make A-series and M-series chips for the older devices the company still makes.
Right now, for example, Apple still makes the iPhone 12. That suggests it will still be making the iPhone 14 in 2024, when the 4nm TSMC Arizona plant comes online. (In fact, it will most likely be making the base-model iPhone 14, which is 5nm.)
Then there’s the M1 MacBook Air, with its 5nm M1 chip, still being made two years after launch. That again suggests that the 4nm(-ish) M2 machines will still be made in 2024, so those too will be candidates for the first Arizona plant.
Chips for non-Pro devices
With the iPhone 14, Apple for the first time used an older processor in a shiny new phone: the non-Pro models get the 5nm A15 chip from the iPhone 13 lineup.
If Apple retains this approach, then it means that it will be using an older chip process for brand-new machines. So the TSMC plant could potentially also make older chips for brand-new devices too.
Or both, of course
And, of course, both could be true.
So, we now know, unambiguously, that the TSMC plants will see Apple Silicon made in America. It just won’t be the latest Apple Silicon.
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