One of the long-term ramifications of the tensions between the US and China has been an acceleration of China’s efforts to move its government and corporate users towards natively-produced semiconductors. China famously imports more semiconductors than oil, and the country has been pushing to change this. This week, the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) announced it had begun commercial mass production of the Kirin 710A for Huawei on its 14nm FinFET process. It’s the first time Huawei has built hardware with a foundry other than TSMC, and it’s a major milestone for SMIC as well.
Neither the Kirin 710 or SMIC’s 14nm FinFET process are particularly noteworthy in and of themselves. The Kirin 710 dates to mid-2018 and combines four Cortex-A73 CPU cores on the same die with four Cortex-A53 cores. The first company to ship 14nm silicon was Intel, which shipped the node in 2014.
The significance of SMIC shipping a Huawei SoC is that a mainland Chinese foundry is shipping the chip at all. I’m willing to grant that we’ve seen no silicon and don’t know the characteristics of SMIC’s 14nm node. Since there is no standard-setting body that defines what “14nm” is, it’s certainly possible that SMIC’s 14nm FinFET node might look more like Intel’s first-generation 22nm node in certain respects. None of that really matters. It’s still a major achievement for SMIC to be shipping a part this close to the leading edge.
SMIC, as far as I’m aware, is the only foundry even talking about pushing into leading-edge lithography. We often talk about how the number of foundries at the leading edge has shrunk with each generation, down to just three at 7/10nm — Intel, Samsung, and TSMC. SMIC isn’t ready to talk about 7nm just yet, but it already has a process it calls “N+1” heading into production, with power reductions of up to 57 percent, performance improvement of up to 20 percent, and a logic area reduction of 63 percent.
There are certain restrictions on the chip manufacturing hardware Chinese companies are allowed to purchase and I’m not certain how this impacts exactly which chips they can build. There’s no sign of any Western companies moving hardware to SMIC, and the Kirin 710 is an already-proven design. Without knowing what kind of volume SMIC will run of the part, it’s not clear how much impact this will even have on foundry volumes.
What these announcements collectively demonstrate is that China is quite serious about ramping its own semiconductor industry and competing more effectively with companies like Samsung, TSMC, and Intel. Some companies, like GlobalFoundries and UMC, earn a profitable existence serving as second source manufacturers on older nodes with cheap prices. Alternately, they may serve as niche manufacturers for very specific technologies that aren’t available in the general market. GF’s specialized 22FDX and supposedly still-in-development 12FDX would both fall into this category. Only a few attempt to play at the top of the space. SMIC is determined to be one.
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