At the end of December, Apple placed the first order for chips made using the 3-nm process technology from TSMC. The company uses these chips in new devices that should be released next year.
But the other day it became knownthat the development of the technical process is under threat — both Samsung and TSMC have problems with new chips. We are talking about the production of FinFET GAA 3-nm chips.
Chinese website IT Home, which is an IT media outlet, said that both companies will postpone the commercial launch of new chips. The site received this information from analysts at Taiwan’s Digitimes.
According to the new information, the problem occurred at the stage of fin field-effect transistor technology development with vertical gates (fin field-effect transistor, FinFET) to the new technology with ring gates (Gate-All-Around, FinFET GAA). It is key in the transition from 5-nm process technology to 3-nm. This technology has become a bottleneck for the entire manufacturing process of new chips.
According to experts, these difficulties give Intel a chance, which will have time to switch to a new technical process from the current one. Now the company is working with 10Nm chips, so it will have time to produce 5nm, and then possibly 3nm.
If there was no problem, then TSMC should have completed certification of the new technical process and started test production before the end of this year. The chip was supposed to go to the masses starting from the second half of next year. It is reported that the chips were planned to be produced on the Phase 3 production lines of the Fab 18 factory. In addition, the company was going to introduce 4-nm chips.
As for Samsung, the South Korean company was going to start the development process of 3-nm chips immediately after the release of 5-nm elements. The new process technology makes it possible to increase chip performance by 10-15%, while increasing energy efficiency by 20-25%. Unfortunately, the plans had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, shifting the plans from 2021 to 2022.
Both companies were going to complete scientific and technical research without any problems, certify the technology and start the process of commercial chip production. At the same time, a huge amount of money has been invested in mastering the technical process. The same TSMC, according to the head of the company Liu Deyin (Liu Deyin) invested several tens of billions of US dollars.
As for the 5-nm process technology, everything is fine here. TMSC is even building a chip factory in the US. It is planned to send 300 qualified engineers there for further training.
Apple, which was mentioned above, placed orders a couple of weeks ago for the production of processors of the A and M series according to the standards of the 3-nm process technology. TSMC was going to transfer to 3-nm processors, which are intended for the most expensive and productive Apple computers. After the launch of production, TSMC planned to produce up to 600 thousand 3-nm chips per year.
If the plans have to be postponed, then Apple will also postpone the launch of new devices-tablets and laptops.
TSMC’s customers include China’s Huawei and MediaTek, and the us’s AMD, which don’t have their own factories, let alone Qualcomm.
Yes, companies that produce chips are developing different technologies in parallel. The same TSMC is currently working on the 4-nm, 3-nm and 2-nm process technology.
TSMC announced the launch of a functional transistor manufacturing scheme using GAAFET technology in the middle of last year. However, now work is being done only on elements of chips. Full-scale production, if there are no problems during operation, will be launched between 2023 and 2024.
GAAFET technology is exactly the bottleneck in the plans. Currently, field-effect transistors of the “fin” type with vertically arranged channels are used. GAAFET is a field effect transistor with a horizontal channel arrangement and a circular gate.
The gate encircles the channel on all sides, whereas in the previous technology, the gate surrounded the channel on three sides out of four, which led to an increase in leakage currents. There is no such problem in GAAFET.
As reported in the fall, TSMC has more than just technological problems. China hunts for qualified specialists, experts in the chip development industry. That is, the middle Kingdom lures engineers to itself, offering them salaries increased by 2-3 times.
Now two Chinese companies are hunting for valuable personnel: Quanxin Integrated Circuit Manufacturing (QXIC) and Wuhan Hongxin Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (HSMC). They have already managed to entice more than a hundred employeesby making them an offer that they do not refuse.
In General, hunting and luring specialists is a common practice in the IT industry. But for TSMC, this is a problem, since the company does not employ many professionals capable of developing new chips. Yes, TSMC employs about 6,000 engineers, but only 150 of them are PhD students. And in just a week, the Chinese poached two-thirds of TSMC’s valuable personnel.
The management of the Taiwanese chip manufacturer is well aware of what all this threatens the company, so TSMC is taking urgent measures to eliminate the threat. In particular, equipment suppliers were forbidden to share with Chinese partners technological solutions that were developed by order of the company. Also, engineers began to raise their salaries so that the conditions in China were not too attractive for them.
Do these measures help? Is unknown. But it may well be that the delay with the 3-nm process is caused by a problem with the frames. The probability of this happening is far from zero.