What Are "Fabless" Chip Makers?

Fabless chip makers are companies that produce semiconductors for use in various types of electronics, such as digital cameras, smartphones, and the new technologically sophisticated “smart” cars.

The term "fabless" means that the company designs and sells the hardware and semiconductor chips but does not manufacture the silicon wafers, or chips, used in its products; instead, it outsources the fabrication to a manufacturing plant or foundry.

Many of these foundries are located in Taiwan and China, where skilled labor is plentiful and cheap, which keeps production costs low and return on investment high.

Key Takeaways

  • Semiconductors, or chips, are used in a variety of electronics, including digital cameras and smartphones.
  • Fabless chipmakers don't make the chips themselves, but instead, outsource the work to foundries or other outside manufacturers.
  • The fabless chip model developed in the 1980s when smaller chip makers were left with a surplus of products in a tough-to-crack market.
  • Fabless companies are often headquartered in costly, industrialized countries, while semiconductor foundries tend to be headquartered in countries where labor costs are cheaper.

Evolution of the Semiconductor Industry

During the technology boom of the 1970s, all top manufacturers of semiconductors maintained a vertically integrated business model: designing, testing, and building the products they sold. Then, in the early 1980s, smaller manufacturers began to enter the marketplace, but strong barriers to entry meant that many of these companies were producing more chips than they could use. This surplus, combined with the continued growth of the semiconductor industry, led to the creation of the fabless business model.

The first foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, was built in 1987; as of 2019, it remains the largest independent manufacturer of silicon components in the world.

The business model works by making use of the design, research, and development skills (and distribution networks) of the fabless company—and the specialized manufacturing skill of the chip foundries.

The Fabless Business Model

The fabless business model is popular in the semiconductor industry because it allows manufacturers to invest profits in the research and development of new technologies while maintaining the high production volumes needed to maintain sales, which continue to grow.

Global chip sales rose to $555.9 billion in 2021, up 26.2% from the previous year, according to the most recent statistics from the Semiconductor Industry Association.

One trillion

The number of semiconductors sold worldwide in 2018, is an all-time record, according to industry data.

Biggest Fabless Chip Makers

The list of top-10 fabless chip makers worldwide includes three U.S. companies: Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Nvidia. Intel, which entered the foundry business in 2010 when it began selling its integrated circuits to the startup Achronix Semiconductor, still tops the list in overall semiconductor sales.

Global demand for semiconductors continues to rise, with sales hitting a record high of nearly $556 billion in 2021, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Apek Mulay. "How the Information Revolution Remade Business and the Economy," Chapter 5. Business Expert Press, 2017.

  2. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. "About TSMC."

  3. Semiconductor Industry Association. "Global Semi-Conductor Sales, Units Shipped Reach All-Time Highs in 2021 as Industry Ramps Up Production Amid Shortage."

  4. Semiconductor Industry Association. "More Than 1 Trillion Semiconductors Sold Annually for the First Time Ever in 2018."

  5. TrendForce. "Revenue of the Top 10 IC Design (Fabless) Companies for 2020 Undergoes 26.4% Increase YoY Due to High Demand for Notebooks and Networking Products, Says TrendForce."

  6. Intel. "A Minute on Manufacturing Access."

  7. Congressional Research Service. "Semiconductors: U.S. Industry, Global Competition, and Federal Policy," Page 50.

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.