Semiconductor manufacturing turns focus to mature silicon processes
Seven months after the US government placed restrictions on Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China’s largest pure-play foundry, the Chinese semiconductor industry is starting to find its footing in a new global market reality.
While being effectively shut out of access to the latest semiconductor fabrication tools needed to catch up to global leaders such as TSMC, major Chinese chipmakers including SMIC have continued to develop 14 nm and 12 nm process nodes based on fin field-effect transistor (FinFET) technology, using mature deep ultraviolet lithography toolsets and processes which make up the majority of existing semiconductor production today.
SMIC sees an opportunity to focus on such mature silicon processes, which can improve production yield and therefore make a stronger impact on its bottom line. In fact, the company’s co-CEO Zhao Haijun has said that, based on positive feedback from customers about its 14 nm process capability, SMIC has decided to increase its spending by $1.1 billion to a total of $4.3 billion to meet demand for chips for communications and automotive applications. We expect China to be fully self-reliant in terms of 14 nm technology by 2022.
Elsewhere in China’s semiconductor industry, registration of new home-grown semiconductor firms has tripled since the start of 2021, according to the South China Morning Post, potentially creating a healthy home market for chip fabrication services like those of SMIC.
The Chinese semiconductor industry is largely being driven by the government, which is pushing for the country to become self-sufficient in silicon production by that year. That goal was dealt a huge setback by US sanctions curbing US technology exports to Chinese companies, but we believe that the Chinese industry is still capable of producing chipsets based on more mature process nodes.
Although leading-edge processes are used to produce sophisticated silicon for high-performance computing and artificial intelligence, global market needs for chips based on mature silicon processes remain strong. Case in point, the semiconductor shortage that’s holding back the automotive industry is mainly because of a lack of mature silicon process capacity, as many old fabs were retired early at the start of the pandemic. We believe that about half the global spending on semiconductors is on mature process chips, so China’s ability to create a vibrant and healthy semiconductor industry is still a very tangible possibility, with or without government support.
Recently, China Mobile has stepped into the industry by creating its own chipmaking business called XinSheng Tech, which will focus on chipsets for Internet of things (IoT) devices. It plans to use its own IoT chip design to customize and enhance its existing IoT business unit, which currently has more than 850 million connections. With the world’s largest wireless operator looking to bring silicon design in-house, the future of Chinese semiconductor manufacturing is getting a big boost.
Furthermore, China’s Vice Premier Liu He has started a programme focussed on using the country’s semiconductor manufacturing resources and talent to make China a potential world leader in compound semiconductors. These are chips built with a mix of materials beyond silicon, such as silicon carbide and gallium nitride, used extensively in radio frequency components that are increasingly appearing in 5G devices. Because compound semiconductors don’t rely on the bleeding edge of chip manufacturing, the Chinese government sees them as an opportunity to become a global leader. This centralized government effort has been successful in the past and Vice Premier Liu is betting that China can pull this off with the necessary support.
The global semiconductor manufacturing industry has become split, as leading-edge process nodes grow finer and only a handful of players with enough scale can afford to invest in new process technologies that cost many billions of dollars. TSMC, Samsung and Intel are among those with enough scale to lead the charge to push Moore’s Law to the limits.
However, for foundries beyond these big-three players, interest in constantly investing in leading-edge process technology has found its limit. GlobalFoundries, the third largest pure-play foundry (Intel is still considered a captive foundry), has recently delayed investing in process nodes below 12 nm to focus on addressing the global silicon shortages. Likewise, UMC of Taiwan — the fourth largest — and SMIC see opportunities with existing process technologies, which are more in demand, creating less incentive for these foundries to keep up with the heavy capital investment needed to stay on the leading edge.
Amid the increasingly tense geopolitical trade skirmishes between the US and China, many non-market forces are introduced in what would otherwise be governed by the free market. However, the political realities are inescapable and the latest trade actions have forced China’s hand in its quest for semiconductor independence. But as with all business challenges, there’s a silver lining in this cloudy picture. China’s pursuit of semiconductor self-sufficiency continues as it turns its focus to building a stable, vibrant and healthy silicon ecosystem, capable of sustaining an industry dominated by international rivals.