Achieving mass production of 14nm chips will secure China’s place as a domestic chip producer at scale, says the deputy head of the country’s leading technology research centre.
But China’s manufacturers must first build on the technical achievements already made in the development and production of high-performance chips if they are to keep pace with their peers in the global market for integrated circuit technology, according to Dr. Wen Xiaojun, Deputy Director at China’s Electronics and Information Industry Development Research Institute (CCID).
China’s chip manufacturers must also increase their commitment in terms of investment and manpower and actively collaborate with domestic players across the semiconductor technology chain if they are to meet the explosion in demand for high-performance chips says Dr. Wen, who expects the development and mass production of 14nm chipsets to mark a watershed in China’s home-grown chip production capability.
Dr. Wen’s assessment of China’s domestic, high-end chip production capability comes against a background of exploding worldwide demand for the kind of high-performance chips used in applications such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, augmented and virtual reality, and AIoT (the convergence of AI and IoT), driven by applications for the automotive sector, high-end consumer electronics, mobile phones and high-speed computing, but also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and trends such as the move to home working and remote connectivity.
Overcoming the technical challenges of mass production
Mass production of 28nm chips, which is expected to commence this year, will be the starting point for domestic chips in China, says Dr. Wen. Among the use cases for which 28nm chips are proving to be a mainstream application are 5G infrastructure and mobile phones, consumer electronics, automotive, industrial applications and data centres.
Mass production of 14nm chips will start in 2022 notwithstanding the technical challenges involved, adds Dr. Wen. In fact, many of the technical problems associated with the development and production of 14nm chipsets and which cover the entire integrated circuit industrial chain system in China, have already been overcome, and progress towards mass production is clear to see, said Dr. Wen.
For example, key equipment and processes such as etching machines and thin film deposition have been realized from scratch; back-end packaging and integration technology have been fully developed; and hundreds of key materials, such as polishing agents and sputtering targets, have passed the assessment of large production lines and have entered mass sales.
The rapid development of domestic 14nm chips has proven the success of China’s ‘returning’ strategy, whereby manufacturers went back to a well-established technological base in order to meet the general chip requirements and paid more attention to design and packaging optimization, rather than blindly pursuing high-level manufacturing processes, said Dr. Wen. The strategy helped to allow development time for semiconductor applications and the entire industry chain he added.
In Dr. Wen Xiaojun’s opinion however, financial support will still be required in order to expand the production capacity for 14nm chips. Equipment such as photolithography machines, cleaning equipment or polishing equipment is not only expensive, but also consume huge amounts of water and electricity. In addition, and to ensure that production capacity is fully utilized, thorough integration work should be done at the supplier level, including the supply of raw materials and components.
14nm technology has the greatest market value today
Mass production of 14nm and 12nm chips is critically important to the semiconductor industry, said Dr. Wen. According to statistics, sales of 14nm chips accounted for 65% of the entire USD200 billion semiconductor market in the first half of 2019, whereas 25% of sales were of 10nm and 12nm chips, and only 10% of chip sales were accounted for by 7nm technology.
While 28nm technology is already very mature in the global semiconductor industry, 10nm technology or above is still cutting-edge, and only a few top players, such as TSMC, Samsung and Intel, have started using this technology, observed Dr. Wen.
So 14nm technology, which is in the middle of the two, has become the main processing technology for most mid-to-high-end chips, has the widest range of uses, and is the most highly valued in the market. It has great development potential in AI chips, high-end processors, and for the automotive market, while other applications include high-end consumer electronics, high-speed computing, low-order power amplifiers and baseband.
Along with 12nm technology, 14nm chips are capable of meeting 70% of the needs of current semiconductor manufacturing demand. Mid-range 5G chips are already using 12nm technology, and 14nm technology can meet the needs of the manufacturing process required by desktop CPUs.
China’s chip producers must work hard to catch up with industry peers
As latecomers in the large-scale production of chips, Chinese manufacturers will need to put more manpower and financial support into their businesses, and ramp up efforts to stand out in the industry, according to Dr. Wen. This is particularly true as, compared to the industry’s leading manufacturers which have many years of production experience in 14nm chips, Chinese businesses have no advantage in terms of cost competition with other manufacturers.
However, their reward will be the huge opportunities for 14nm process chips, Dr. Wen suggested. With the advent of 5G and the AIoT era, products in areas such as smart cities, autonomous vehicles and IoT monitoring are becoming increasingly abundant, and chip technology can gradually start to focus on optimization for specific scenarios where it can unlock huge potential.