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How semiconductor companies can win in China’s new product-development landscape

By Thierry Chesnais and Christopher Thomas
How semiconductor companies can win in China’s new product-development landscape

Product-design centers in China want to become stronger engines of global innovation. What does this mean for semiconductor suppliers?

China has become an important center of R&D and global product development for many OEMs that semiconductor suppliers serve. With the country’s strong economic performance until recently, its local universities graduating millions of engineers, and many OEMs eager to capture growth , China’s ascent over the past decade was both predictable and understandable.

Hoping to take advantage of China’s favorable environment, both Chinese and multinational OEMs have opened new product-design centers or expanded existing facilities throughout the country. The Chinese OEMs have traditionally asked their design centers to specialize in making products for the local market. Similarly, multinational corporations (MNCs) have focused their China-based design centers on customizing global designs for the Chinese market or on developing a narrow portfolio of China-focused products. Neither locally owned centers nor MNC-owned centers have emphasized innovation because most products created for the Chinese market do not include leading-edge technologies, partly to keep costs low.

That will soon change, however. Chinese customers are becoming more discerning and increasingly want innovative products. In addition, the slowdown in the Chinese economy means that design centers must pursue more opportunities in other countries to maintain their momentum. These points were underscored by a survey we recently conducted of about 80 R&D and product-development executives at OEM China design centers.1 (See the sidebar, “McKinsey survey of OEM China design-center heads: Methodology,” for more information.) The survey respondents expect OEM China design centers to shift their focus to increasing exports and driving innovation over the next few years, a move that would allow them to capture a much greater share of global product-development activity. If our survey respondents’ predictions play out, demand for semiconductors and other components at OEM China design centers could rise from $350 billion in 2016 to $500 billion by 2020. This growth would represent the single largest opportunity for component suppliers globally.

This article first reviews findings from the survey, discussing the evolution of OEM China design centers, their aspirations, and the government’s role in promoting product development in China. It then focuses on strategic issues that semiconductor companies must consider when attempting to win business in China’s thriving product-development landscape.

The growth of product development in China

Between 2007 and 2015, overall R&D spending in China rose more than fourfold across all companies and industries—the fastest growth among major countries or regions in the world (Exhibit 1). The increase was driven by both OEMs headquartered in China and MNCs with design centers there. Much of the spending was related to system-level, end-product design in IT and advanced industries, the sectors that formed the focus of our survey. R&D spending in China is expected to continue on its upward trajectory through 2020.

China is an increasingly important component of global R&D and product development.

According to McKinsey research, roughly 15 to 20 percent of OEM product development in IT and advanced industries took place in China in 2016. (This is at an aggregate level; China’s share of global product development varies substantially by industry subsegments.) China’s share of the global end market for IT and advanced industries is also about 15 to 20 percent. Locally owned centers account for 70 to 80 percent of product-development spending in China, with MNC-owned centers accounting for the remainder.

Survey respondents expect their OEM China design centers to increase their share of global product development over the next five years by about ten percentage points. If this growth materializes, China will account for 25 to 30 percent of worldwide product development. This shift would realign the global product-development footprint, with $150 billion to $200 billion in annual product-development spending moving to OEM China design centers. Growth estimates varied somewhat by industry, but all respondents believe that locally owned centers will account for almost all of the increase in product-development spending in China.

Despite recent economic challenges in China, growth of the country’s end market will continue to outpace the global average and is expected to have an aggregate value of $3.5 trillion by 2020. But even with this above-average growth, China will represent only about 20 to 25 percent of the global end market. This means that China-based product-development activity might grow more rapidly than the Chinese end market.

For component suppliers who supply OEM China design centers, the stakes are high. Managers at the location where an end product is designed and developed generally make important “design-in” decisions about its components, including semiconductors. If OEM China design centers gain ten incremental points of product-development share (and associated design-in), they could account for an additional $150 billion in component sales—another substantial realignment of the global footprint.

Aspirations of OEM China design centers

How can OEM China design centers gain a greater share of the global market and become exporters of product designs? In the view of survey respondents, the path to this goal involves globalization and innovation.

Going global. Our survey showed that OEM China design centers, both local and MNC, would like to increase the number of products that can be exported outside China. Respondents from locally owned centers, regardless of industry, realize that this will necessitate a more global outlook. Currently, their initial designs only consider the needs of domestic customers. They then either modify the product for export to the global market or try to sell it internationally without modification. In the future, however, locally owned centers plan to consider input from both Chinese and global customers during the initial design phase, increasing the number of products with international appeal.

For MNC-owned centers in advanced industries, the goal of increasing exports is also relatively straightforward, since they already consider the needs of both global and Chinese customers and want to continue this approach. For MNC-owned centers in IT, however, the situation is more complex. Although they now consider the needs of Chinese and global customers during product design, our survey showed that they wanted to more closely emulate the locally owned centers’ design model to gain an advantage with local customers. But like all other design centers, they also want to increase the number of products for export. These dueling ambitions could be difficult to achieve.

Creating leading-edge product designs. OEM China design centers want to create more leading-edge products that use the latest microprocessor architecture, connectivity technology, or software platforms. At MNC-owned centers, survey respondents hope to increase the percentage of leading-edge designs from 50 percent to 90 percent; respondents at locally owned centers hope to move from 30 percent to 85 percent. This obviously requires the development of better end-to-end capabilities.

Can OEM China design centers achieve their aspirations?

When we asked survey respondents if they were optimistic about the future of product development in China, 55 percent stated that OEM China design centers were already on par with, or superior to, leading global centers. However, 45 percent felt that they would never achieve best-in-class status. These divergent opinions are unsurprising, since there’s evidence in support of both viewpoints.

Optimistic view: OEM China design centers will become global innovation leaders. As the global market becomes more important, and as local customers increasingly focus on innovation, OEM China design centers must produce leading-edge products. To achieve that goal, nothing is more important than the presence of talented engineers. Some of our survey findings indicated the OEM China design centers have a wealth of talent, with respondents stating that improved capabilities are the most important driver of increased product-development activity in China (Exhibit 2). Respondents also stated that they’d seen capability improvements across disciplines, especially software architecture, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. These upgrades have helped OEM China design centers continue to increase productivity despite wage inflation, including average annual increases of more than 10 percent in engineering salaries over the past five years.

Product design is moving to China because of the increased capabilities of Chinese companies and engineers.

An opposing view: OEM China design centers will take longer to achieve aspirations, or fail to do so. If we look at our 2012 survey, there’s reason to be concerned about the ability of OEM China design centers to achieve global growth with leading-edge products. Back then, most respondents predicted that their design centers would become global leaders. But when we measured progress against these aspirations via our 2016 survey, these objectives were not reached:

  • MNC-owned centers did not achieve their goal of becoming leading “global centers of excellence.” Instead, they became more focused on selling to the China market, possibly because domestic demand was growing so strongly and innovation was not as much of a priority for local customers during that time.
  • Only 41 percent of products coming out of MNC-owned centers in China were described as “mostly new designs” (rather than lower-cost or derivative designs) in 2016—down from 48 percent in 2012. For locally owned centers, new designs decreased from 54 to 28 percent. This again may reflect an increased focus on the local market, which had not yet shifted its focus to innovation.
  • Between 2012 and 2016, the share of products created specifically for the global market dropped from 70 percent to about 35 percent at MNC-owned centers and remained at about 30 percent at locally owned centers as domestic demand surged.

These findings indicate that OEM China design centers increased their resources, spending, and portfolios rapidly between 2012 and 2016, but they did so by focusing on the China market’s overall desire for “value for money,” which generally (but not always) involves derivative or lagging-edge designs.

Some other findings from the 2016 survey also raise concerns. For instance, only 55 percent of respondents believe that China’s current engineering productivity is greater than the global average. Further, one out of five respondents stated that OEM China design centers are now less productive than those in other locations. A few more years of double-digit cost inflation, combined with a lack of corresponding productivity improvements, will make China a high-cost location for design.

There are also some concerns about engineering capabilities, despite the obvious gains made in recent years and the optimism expressed by many respondents. For instance, locally owned centers are less likely than MNC-owned centers to employ expatriates, China natives with overseas experience, or engineers who are proficient in English (the global language of product development). All of these factors may interfere with the dual goals of globalization and innovation. The lack of engineers with international experience may become a greater issue, since survey respondents at locally owned centers think that their engineering staff will include a greater percentage of China natives in the future.

The impact of new government policies on OEM China design centers

Over the past few years, the Chinese government has indicated that greater innovation in manufacturing and product development is a national priority. For instance, the “Made in China 2025” policy, implemented in 2015, aims to upgrade Chinese industry across sectors, with a focus on improving quality and helping local companies achieve a greater role in the global supply chain. Most of our survey respondents—53 percent—believe that new government policies will have a major impact and increase product development in China. For instance, agencies granting government contracts might favor companies that are headquartered in China or whose products contain many components made in China.

Our survey also revealed that OEM China design centers believe that the government will provide more incentives, including subsidies, for companies to create products that can be considered Chinese in origin. For locally owned centers, this is not an issue, since their products will be Chinese by default. MNC-owned centers, by contrast, will need to take additional steps in order for their products to be considered Chinese. Many respondents stated that branding and manufacturing strategies, such as forming a partnership with a PRC2 -headquartered company, could make a product local in the eyes of government or state-owned entities (SOEs). Others felt that engineering-based approaches, such as using software-source codes from PRC-headquartered companies, would help. Currently, only 25 percent of respondents believe that the inclusion of core components from PRC suppliers will increase the likelihood that a product is classified as Chinese. However, 61 percent stated that the inclusion of components from PRC-headquartered companies will be important within five years—and that has major implications for the semiconductor suppliers that serve OEM China design centers.

The $500 billion treasure hunt for semiconductor and component suppliers serving OEM China design centers

For component suppliers aiming to win the next generation of OEM designs in IT and advanced industries, the stakes are high. If our respondents are right and China adds ten percentage points to its global share of product development by 2020, OEM China design centers could control $500 billion worth of design-in decisions for critical end-product components, including semiconductors, up from roughly $350 billion in 2016. This growth could represent the single largest opportunity for component suppliers globally in the next five years.

To win, component suppliers will have to understand the rapidly changing market. For instance, McKinsey research indicates that locally owned centers now account for about three-quarters of demand for semiconductors and other components in China, largely because they have complete freedom when making purchase decisions. By contrast, 49 percent of survey respondents at MNC-owned centers stated that they had little or no influence over the choice of core components for leading-edge designs, instead following decisions made at their headquarters. That may soon change, however, since two-thirds of MNC respondents believe that their Chinese design teams will have primary or equal control over component selection for their designs by 2020. That means both MNC-owned centers and locally owned centers could represent important opportunities.

Shifting customer priorities could also have a major effect on component demand. Our survey indicates that OEM China design centers, both local and MNC, now select core components based on classic considerations such as technical performance, price, and quality (Exhibit 3). The location of a supplier’s headquarters is of relatively little importance. This may soon change, however, since many MNCs want to indigenize their supply chains. That means they’d like to include more core components from PRC-headquartered suppliers so that the government and SOEs will consider their products local. In our survey, MNC respondents indicated that the share of core components purchased from PRC-headquartered suppliers could rise from 22 percent today to 32 percent within five years (Exhibit 4). For the total bill of materials, MNC-owned centers could increase sourcing from PRC-headquartered suppliers from 30 percent to 40 percent. If this happens, up to $50 billion of the servable market would shift toward PRC-headquartered suppliers.

MNC-owned and locally owned centers care about the same factors in selecting core components.
MNC-owned centers aspire to source more core components from PRC-headquartered suppliers in the future.

So, how can MNC and PRC-headquartered semiconductor suppliers succeed in this rapidly changing environment? What strategies will help them grow along with OEM China design centers and ensure that their components are incorporated into new global, leading-edge designs?

As in any market, strong execution will be critical to winning. But the size and complexity of the China opportunity may create some additional complications. For instance, component vendors may have difficulty determining which locally owned centers represent the best opportunities, since many are still developing the capabilities needed to compete globally and produce leading-edge products. In addition, the local OEM market is incredibly dynamic, especially in emerging growth sectors, such as electric vehicles, the Internet of Things, and smart devices. In the past year alone, China-based appliance makers, Internet companies, television-content players, and solar-panel manufacturers have all announced plans to become electric-vehicle OEMs. Although many of these players will enter the market with great hype, the hot company one year can be an also-ran the next. Such uncertainty can complicate investment decisions when suppliers are contemplating their options.

Strategic considerations for MNC component suppliers

It can be difficult for MNC component suppliers to create a coherent China strategy because they often have a fragmented view of opportunities and challenges within the market. Their local country leadership, CEOs, heads of business units, and global function managers may hold different perspectives based on experience and their own priorities. To avoid conflict, MNC component suppliers should invest in building a common and aligned fact base to accelerate decision making, such as information on customers that might represent the best opportunities. They’ll also need to address some basic questions, such as how important it is for them to win in China, whether they’re poised to succeed, and the extent of the competitive threat from PRC-headquartered component suppliers, many of which are rapidly improving their technological capabilities.

Customizing for China. Our survey, as well as discussions with project-development executives, suggest that OEM China design centers—both locally owned and MNC-owned—appreciate suppliers that have a personal touch. In other words, they like to partner with companies that consider how their needs might differ from those of design centers in other locations. Suppliers might gain a particular advantage with OEM China design centers by tailoring their products, pricing, business arrangements, and technical support to the Chinese market. This could involve the following activities:

  • designing components from the ground up for OEM China design centers, focusing on their desired performance and price points
  • providing rapid turnaround on pricing and product road-map requests (without long reviews at headquarters)
  • fulfilling orders through local distributors and system integrators
  • providing physical and online technical materials in Chinese that target engineers with less global experience

These practices are straightforward to implement, but they may differ, in minor and significant ways, from a company’s global processes. To implement them successfully, MNC component suppliers will have to shift some authority and road-map control to their local China teams. Empowering teams requires a delicate balance and may be one of the more challenging issues for MNC component suppliers to resolve. If they move too little authority and control, more nimble PRC-headquartered component suppliers will outhustle them for business. If they move too much, they might fragment their engineering function, wasting precious resources.

Increasing local investment. MNC component suppliers have to make hard decisions about increasing their “on the ground” investment in China—the amount they spend improving their local operations or forming partnerships with local investors, component suppliers, or other companies. A partnership could involve something as simple as providing technical support, or a more substantial commitment, such as a minority investment. When evaluating their options, MNC component suppliers will need to identify the key buying factors for each of their target customer segments and determine if a greater investment in China would help them fulfill these needs. For instance, MNC-owned centers that conduct most of their business with PRC government entities are more likely to prefer PRC-headquartered suppliers so that their products will be considered “local.” In cases like that, MNC component suppliers might not gain any benefits by forming a partnership with a Chinese player.

If MNC component vendors do move forward with partnerships, they should remember that OEM China design centers now have the same high expectations for technology, cost, and reliability as their global counterparts. A partner that falls short in any of these areas could thus make it difficult to win business. Whenever MNC component suppliers discuss increasing local investments, all options should be rigorously tested with a war-gaming mentality. For instance, they’ll need to consider whether forming a partnership with a Chinese company will help if their other global competitors are doing the same thing.

Restructuring for success. No matter what path they choose, winning in China will require MNC component suppliers to make some hard trade-offs and undergo operational restructuring across regions and functions. For instance, they might need to move some decision-making authority out of headquarters to managers within China. To succeed, they’ll need just as much support from home-country development teams as the local China team. Since it would be hard for these trade-offs to be driven from the bottom up, the MNC component supplier’s senior-management team will need to orchestrate any actions.

Strategic considerations for PRC-headquartered suppliers

For PRC-headquartered suppliers, many of the most important strategic challenges involve their engineering capabilities. Most of these suppliers now win business from locally owned centers by offering low component costs and rapid time to market. In the future, however, locally owned centers will place more importance on finding partners with strong technological skills that can help them create innovative products for the global market. In our survey, respondents from locally owned centers stated that MNC technology and component suppliers are now their first choice for third-party partnerships, favoring them over other OEMs, Internet companies, and Chinese start-ups. To compete with their global rivals and prepare for long-term success with locally owned centers, PRC-headquartered suppliers will need to begin enhancing their capabilities now. They could take various routes to achieve this goal, ranging from hiring new engineers with the desired technological skills to acquiring leading-edge companies.

Improved technological skills will also help PRC-headquartered suppliers win business from MNC-owned centers, which have long focused on obtaining leading-edge components when selecting suppliers. If these centers increase sourcing from PRC-headquartered suppliers, as our survey suggests, new opportunities will open up. As with locally owned centers, those PRC-headquartered suppliers that offer the most innovative products could capture the largest share of new business.


Despite tremendous past success, OEM China design centers need to take their game to the next level by developing innovative products that will allow them to compete globally. They will need support from technology partners to achieve this goal, and both PRC-headquartered and MNC semiconductor suppliers are well positioned to provide it. The sheer scale of the opportunity to serve OEM China design centers, combined with the unique requirements of these customers, indicate that semiconductor suppliers cannot follow their traditional approach to the Chinese market. Instead, they must smartly and proactively build a new strategy that allows them to help OEM China design centers—especially the likely winners—meet their aspirations on the global stage. The stakes are huge.

About the author(s)

Thierry Chesnais is an associate partner in McKinsey’s Hong Kong office, and Christopher Thomas is a partner in the Beijing office.

The authors wish to thank Allen Chen, Fan Montgomery, and Tiankai Zhu for their contributions to this article.
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