For two years, the Silicon Design Center in Munich has been at the heart of Apple’s industrial strategy. What is special about this European engineering center? How it contributed to the M3 chip in the latest MacBook Pros. To find out, we went there.
“Designed in California, Assembled in China”. According to the famous formula found on the back of most Apple products, the iPhone, MacBook and other Watches would be imagined in Cupertino before being produced on the other side of the Pacific, in what is also be the factory of the world, China. In fact, the most informed observers of the Apple brand know well that when Apple mentions a new revolutionary 3nm chip, it is in reality manufactured by TSMC and that when we emphasize the assembly quality of an iPhone 15 Pro Max in titanium, it is Foxconn’s know-how that is being praised.
What we know less, however, is that the road that leads from Cupertino to Shenzen is not direct. Sometimes, within the framework of certain products or components, there are some detours. This is the case, for example, of the M3 chip, the centerpiece of the new MacBook Pro and the iMac 24 (2023). Apparently, this is the joint work of Doug Brooks and his teams in Cupertino on the one hand and the founder TSMC on the other. But in fact, between California and China, the M3 chip design process makes a stopover… in Germany and more precisely in Munich.
In fact, in recent years, Apple has opened a major research center on the other side of the Rhine, the Silicon Design Center. A few days after the announcement of the M3 chips and our tests of the machines that embed them, we wanted to know how the European part had contributed to the design of the brand’s new reference SoC (System on Chip). More generally, Apple’s European presence raises questions. So here are two opportunities to take the road to Bavaria and discover Apple’s Silicon Design Center in Munich.
An Apple engineering hub in the center of Europe
Of course, you don’t enter an Apple research center without having to observe a few rules, including a commitment not to take any photos during your visit. Consequently, the illustrations in this article were provided by the brand, which does not prevent them from representing fairly accurately what we were able to observe on site. Before going further and understanding the role of the Silicon Design Center in Munich in the development of the M3 chip, it is appropriate to return to the genesis of this rather atypical project on the part of a company very focused on California. .
The project to develop a European research center began in 2015, under the leadership, among others, of a French engineer, Gregoire Le Grand de Mercey, around whom the initial team in Munich will be built. This one, a defector from Cupertino, is still, eight years later, at the head of the Bavarian Hardware division. Apple’s intentions were made official six years later, in 2021 when the Apple brand inaugurated the Silicon Design Center and it was revealed to the world. At this precise moment, Apple announced that it wanted to make Munich its European silicon development center with an initial investment of one billion euros.
Today, this Design Center is not focused on a single location. This is a fairly large structure that is spread across four buildings located between Karlstrasse and Marsstrasse on the west side of Munich. A fifth building, not far from there, should be inaugurated very soon, a sign that the project to set up in Germany is continuing. This decision comes after a second investment of one billion euros in the Silicon Design Center announced in March 2023.
From a handful of employees working in secret, the Bavarian entity in Munich has grown in just a few years to more than 2,000 engineers spread across the four sites. Our visit focused on the main building, at 77 Karlstrasse. From the outside, nothing suggests that it is a research center and even less that Apple is in charge. Besides, there is no point looking for any brand logo, including at reception. These premises, which could apparently be those of any German bank, hide particularly well what is happening behind the large glass facades of the building or the series of corridors which allow you to pass from one side to the other of this large cube with an interior courtyard. Of course, the environment is particularly secure. You don’t enter the holy of holies of Apple research in Europe without having been invited and without showing your credentials at every door or elevator. In short, nothing could be more normal when working on the development of one of the most spectacular components of the year, the famous M3 chip and its derivatives, M3 Pro and M3 Max.
What is Europe’s role in the design of the M3 chip?
Indeed, the role of the Silicon Design Center is anything but trivial in the design of the new chip that equips the MacBook Pro and the iMac. Apple’s “largest engineering center” in Europe had two specific missions in the design of the new SoC. The first concerns the “power management” of the chip, in other words the management of the power supply of the various micro components as well as what relates to energy consumption, an essential data for in-house chips since the transition from Apple to its in-house ARM SoC, in other words, from the M1 chip.
However, although the Silicon Design Center was not directly involved in the development of this first Apple Silicon chip, it has since been largely integrated into the project to the point of being at work on this “power management” part. in M3 chips. The other aspect in which the German teams are at the forefront is the connectivity part of the chip which would be entirely devolved to them.
Apple’s European ambitions
Undeniably and rather surprisingly, Europe has taken a considerable part in Apple’s R&D. Even if its role is crucial in the design of the M3 chip, the Silicon Design Center is also involved in the development of other products of the brand, starting with the iPhone, the iPad or the Watch of which the chips are an essential aspect of the Apple Silicon project.
Between Cupertino and China, Munich is today an essential stage in the production circuit for Apple Silicon chips. The German Design Center, the result of this desire, has become Apple’s largest engineering center on the Old Continent, which has also led the Apple brand to increase its investments in Europe. Thus, Apple would work with more than 4,000 European suppliers and would have totaled more than 85 billion euros in spending with these service providers. Certainly, European subsidies to attract microprocessor manufacturers to the Continent are undoubtedly no stranger to Apple’s relatively recent passion for Europe, but the fact remains that Cupertino has been able to completely integrate the Bavarian part in the development of its chips.
Then there remains the question of the choice of Munich. Why and how was the “capital” of Bavaria chosen? The dynamism of Bavaria, home to renowned industrialists such as Siemens and BMW, certainly makes it a stronghold of technological innovation. Its renowned universities and the recognized training of its German engineers undoubtedly also weighed in Apple’s choice to turn to Germany. But after Tesla, which opted for Berlin to the detriment of France for its Gigafactory, it is reasonable to wonder about the seductive potential of France. There is no shortage of skills centers in new technology, as are training courses, yet and even though one of the decision-makers was French, it was on the other side of the Rhine that the gaze was cast. ‘Apple.