One of the longstanding trends in semiconductor manufacturing has been a steady decrease in major foundry players. Twenty years ago, when 180nm manufacturing was cutting-edge technology, there were no fewer than 28 firms deploying the node. Today, there are three companies building 7nm technology — Samsung, TSMC, and Intel. A fourth, GlobalFoundries, has since quit the cutting-edge business to focus on specialty foundry technologies like its 22nm and 12nm FDX technology.
What sometimes gets lost in this discussion, however, is the existence of a secondary group of foundry companies that do deploy new nodes — just not at the cutting-edge of technological research. China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) has announced that it will begin recognizing 14nm revenue from volume production by the end of 2019, a little more than five years after Intel began shipping on this node. TSMC, Samsung, and GlobalFoundries all have extensive 14nm capability in production, as does UMC, which introduced the node in 2017.
Secondary sources for a node, like UMC and SMIC, often aren’t captured in comparative manufacturing charts like the one below because the companies in question offer these nodes after they’ve been deployed as cutting-edge products by major foundries. In many cases, they’re tapped by smaller customers with products that don’t make news headlines.
SMIC, however, is something of a special case. SMIC is mainland China’s largest semiconductor manufacturer and builds chips ranging from 350nm to 14nm. The company has two factories with the ability to process 300mm wafers, but while moving to 14nm is a major part of China’s long-term semiconductor initiative, SMIC isn’t expected to have much 14nm capacity any time soon. The company’s high utilization rate (~94 percent) precludes it having much additional capacity to dedicate to 14nm production. SMIC is vital to China’s long-term manufacturing goals; the country’s “Made in China 2025” plan calls for 70 percent of its domestic semiconductor demand to come from local companies by 2025. Boosting production at SMIC and bringing new product lines online is vital to that goal. That distinguishes the company from a foundry like UMC, which has generally chosen not to compete with TSMC for leading-edge process nodes. SMIC wants that business — it just can’t compete for it yet.
Dr. Zhao Haijun and Dr. Liang Mong Song, SMIC’s Co-Chief Executive Officers released a statement on the company’s 14nm ramp, saying:
FinFET research and development continues to accelerate. Our 14nm is in risk production and is expected to contribute meaningful revenue by year-end. In addition, our second-generation FinFET N+1 has already begun customer engagement. We maintain long-term and steady cooperation with customers and clutch onto the opportunities emerging from 5G, IoT, automotive and other industry trends.
Currently, only 16 percent of the semiconductors used in China are built there, but the country is adding semiconductor production capacity faster than anywhere else on Earth. The company is investing in a $10B fab that will be used for dedicated 14nm production. SMIC is already installing equipment in the completed building, so production should ramp up in that facility in 2020. Once online, the company will have significantly more 14nm capacity at its disposal (major known customers of SMIC include HiSilicon and Qualcomm). Texas Instruments has built with the company in the past (it isn’t clear if it still does), as has Broadcom. TSMC and SMIC have gone through several rounds of litigation over IP misappropriation; both cases were settled out of court with substantial payments to TSMC.
Despite this spending, analysts do not expect SMIC to immediately catch up with major foundry players from other countries; analysts told CNBC it would take a decade for the firm to close the gap with other major players. Exact dimensions on SMIC’s 14nm node are unknown. Foundry nodes are defined by the individual company not by any overarching standard organization or in reference to any specific metric. Those looking for additional information on that topic will find it here.