Saturday, 16 January 2021

China and the road to semiconductor independence

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Friday 11 December 20

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC)’s N+1 process breakthrough in October is a sign that Chinese semiconductor tech will not be in the shadow of the West for long

In recent months, when discussing the rise of China’s rapidly accelerating semiconductor industry, the discussion has primarily been around the scale and speed of that growth and not the quality of its technology. This is hardly surprising; China is unequivocally behind many of its international rivals when it comes to the cutting edge of chip technology, such as the 7nm and even 5nm processes being explored by the likes of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)…

In recent months, when discussing the rise of China’s rapidly accelerating semiconductor industry, the discussion has primarily been around the scale and speed of that growth and not the quality of its technology.

This is hardly surprising; China is unequivocally behind many of its international rivals when it comes to the cutting edge of chip technology, such as the 7nm and even 5nm processes being explored by the likes of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). 

But, with such enormous investment being pumped into the industry in recent months, for how long will this continue to be the case? 

The answer to this question is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, the Chinese government is working hard with the country’s semiconductor industry to create an environment ripe for enormous investment, offering significant tax incentives for investment in these companies. This, in turn, is creating a huge opportunity for growth for the likes of SMIC, the country’s largest semiconductor firm.

According to figures from S&P Global Market Intelligence, SMIC gained around $7.5 billion in investment from its IPO earlier this year. Combine this with with the $2.5 billion it received in government funding and you have a company that is flush with cash and in an increasing position to take on TSMC, on whom China currently relies for around 55% of its chip-making needs. By contrast, SMIC currently accounts for around 19%.

But enormous investment alone will not allow SMIC and other domestic Chinese firms to immediately bridge the technological gap between them and their international rivals, with experts suggesting that it will still be a number of years before they catch up.

Nonetheless, this gap is shrinking rapidly, with significant breakthroughs coming to light this year. 

Perhaps foremost among these revelations is SMIC’s N+1 process, said to be comparable to the 7nm process used by chipmakers like TSMC and Samsung. The technology boasts a 20% increase in performance compared to SMIC’s current 14nm production, as well as a power consumption reduction of 57%, a reduced logic area by 63%, and System on a Chip (SoC) area reduction by 55%. 

While this offers scalability and power consumption are similar to that of the aforementioned rivals, the performance still lags behind, hence SMIC is reportedly only targetting low-power, low-cost devices for the N+1 nodes. 

We should remember, however, that this is just the start of an uphill struggle for China’s domestic industry. Liang Mengsong, SMIC’s co-CEO noted that research into the next generation, N+2, is already underway, targetting the performance gap of their current technology. Significant results are expected to be recorded over the coming years, with forecasts from Goldman Sachs suggesting that SMIC will even upgrade to 5nm processes as early as the second half of 2024. 

It is not only industry players themselves that are making breakthroughs. Academic research is also making waves this year, with a Chinese research institute making a major technological leap with a new type of 5nm laser lithography in September. While in a practical sense this development still leaves the Chinese industry a number of years away from using this technology in domestic production, it nonetheless presents a foundation for further research and is unarguable proof that China is making significant progress.

 

Also in the news:
China’s chip industry eyes advanced breakthroughs in the coming year
EU bands together for semiconductor tech push to ensure ‘technical sovereignty’
Shell reportedly pulls ahead of Sky and TalkTalk in Post Office broadband deal

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