There seems to be a public misconception that Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) spends more on leading-edge logic semiconductor development than Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) does. This has been the primary reason why some investors believe that Samsung will one day match, and then exceed, what Intel does vis-a-vis chip building. While Samsung may very well do so -- though personally I'm not betting on it -- it won't be due to the South Korean giant outspending Intel.
How much does Intel spend on chip manufacturing R&D?
If you rewind back to Intel's 2012 investor meeting, you'll note that Intel did us the courtesy of breaking down how it allocates the roughly $10 billion/year in R&D into various buckets:
If you'll notice, Intel allocates greater than $2 billion/year just on technology development, which is the short way of saying process technology development. Also note that these numbers are vintage 2012. If we fast forward to the 2013 investor meeting, you'll see that 2014 spending on process technology R&D should be up more than 10% from 2012 levels:
We can reasonably assume that Intel spends about $2.5 billion/year on developing its leading-edge manufacturing technologies. To put this into perspective, TSMC (NYSE:TSM) -- the world's leading independent semiconductor contract manufacturer -- has spent about $1.64 billion on R&D during the last 12 months, with that run rate more than double the amount the company spent in 2010. Developing leading-edge manufacturing technology is getting harder and more expensive.
How about Samsung?
While we know what Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor spend, the question now turns to Samsung. There have been claims that Samsung is spending roughly double what Intel is spending on manufacturing technology R&D, but digging around reveals that this isn't even remotely the case. Indeed, a recent report from firm IC Insights published in February of this year put Samsung at $2.82 billion in semiconductor R&D spending during 2013, up 2% from 2012 levels.
Note that the vast majority of Samsung's semiconductor business actually consists of DRAM/NAND rather than logic semiconductors. (According again to IC Insights, Samsung's total logic revenue came in at $3.95 billion. ) In addition to DRAM/NAND flash development, Samsung develops logic processes, as well as various chips (such as image sensors, Exynos apps processors, and cellular basebands). Given the R&D intensity of these activities as a whole, it's tough to believe that Samsung is spending anywhere close to $2 billion on just logic process development.
Foolish bottom line
Samsung is a large, powerful company. and has its fingers in a lot of pots, but even its resources are not unlimited. A great deal of hype has surrounded the company's logic process development ever since Samsung/GLOBALFOUNDRIES announced their "fab-sync" deal for Samsung's 14-nanometer process. While Samsung certainly appears to have ambitions to attract more customers to its foundry business (particularly as its main client Apple seems to be defecting to TSMC), it seems a bit farfetched to assume that Samsung is going to "catch-up" to Intel in logic manufacturing technology anytime soon.