China on way to self reliance in 28-nm chips; to attain maturity in 14-mm category as well

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Globally semiconductor industry is going through an unprecedented challenge due to shortage of chips. The industry feels that the sanctions imposed by Trump administration on Chinese firms have contributed for this crisis. In China, major players have stepped up efforts to combat the current shortage by engaging in new production plans and expanding the existing ones. With the support from the government, the semiconductor industry in China is expected to attain self-reliance in popular technologies very soon.

The demand skyrockets amid supply challenges

Since the onset of COVID -19 epidemic, the industry witnessed a surge in demand for electronic devices like computers and smartphones, which became essential to meet the work- and study-related needs of individuals across the globe. The growth of 5G, in parallel to these developments, introduced a new wave of technologies and devices that demand high-end processors to deliver high performance with lower power consumption.  The automotive sector also witnessed explosive growth, as public transport became difficult during the pandemic.

During 2020, global semiconductor industry sales grew by 6.5 percent to $439.0 billion, compared to the 2019 total of $412.3 billion. China remained the largest individual market for semiconductors, accounting for $151.7 billion sales in 2020, an increase of 5.0% Y-o-Y. China, which buys 40% share of the global semiconductor shipments, is now trying to cut down its reliance on imports.

SMIC leads Chinese chip manufacturing

SMIC, a key contributor to China’s domestic semiconductor industry and the world’s 5th largest producer of chips, said the sanctions by the Trump administration seriously affected the company’s business, as it could not procure technology from U.S. suppliers. The sanctions also impacted the industry at large as many firms started stock piling chips and other components fearing shortage.

Despite the restrictions, SMIC reported a record high of US$3.91 billion in revenues for the entire year in 2020, with nearly 17% growth YoY. The company shipped 1,415,788 wafers during the fourth quarter alone, a 5.7% jump from the corresponding period previous year.

SMIC focuses on chips from 350 nm node to advanced 14 nm. The aggressive manufacturing plans which SMIC has undertaken over the past couple of years, with support from the Chinese Government, have been pivotal in the success of the company.  The US$2 billion investment, which SMIC procured from China National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund and the Shanghai Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund last year, has been instrumental in this development.

SMIC, in cooperation with the Shenzhen government, recently announced plans to build a 28-nm factory in Shenzen. The project, with an estimated 2.35 billion U.S. dollars (15.3 billion yuan approximately) in investment, will have a monthly production capacity of about 40,000 12-inch wafers.

SMIC perceives that the massive production of 28-nm chips will, to an extent, address the current market demands, from both China and abroad. The 28-nm node and above fall in the mature category of chips, and market players believe the technology will find relevance at least for the next five years. In November last year, the China Semiconductor Industry Association had noted that China will become self sufficient in 28-nm process technology within two years and the mass production of 28-nm chips will be realized end of this year in China. This is crucial for the country’s self reliance on advanced chip technologies, and proves how the country is preparing to combat the unexpected challenges like the current sanctions.

China is also building momentum in the 14-nm and below category. In a major breakthrough, the Shanghai government announced the plans for “scaled production” of 12-nm semiconductors this year, as part of the government’s strategy to reduce reliance on foreign markets. Industry reports reveal that SMIC could be the choice of the project, considering the company’s capability in mass production of 14-nm and 12-nm. The 14-nm chip market in China is expected to mature by next year, considering the aggressive manufacturing initiatives by the largest semiconductor foundry in China.

The growth is also triggered by the rise in demand from Chinese companies, which largely relied on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) before the U.S. sanctions.

The crisis has also pushed Chinese manufacturers to invest in futuristic technologies, especially the millimeter-wave 5G chips. In its new facility, SMIC is planning to produce the 7-nm chip, the latest advancement based on the N+1 process. Compared to SMIC’s 14nm process, N+1 promises 20% increase in performance and 57% reduction in power consumption, which is comparable with the competing products in the market, according to SMIC CEO Liang Mengsong. The process is ideal to build low-power applications like those in 5G. SMIC is set to run mass production of 7-nm chips later this year.

With this momentum expected to sustain in the future, the Chinese chip manufacturing industry looks highly prospective.

Rajani Baburajan