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Escalating trade tensions between the United States and China have resulted in Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies being unable to secure semiconductors fabricated on leading-edge process nodes. This has stripped the company's ability to compete in the high-end smartphone market and made it difficult for it to secure similar products elsewhere.
One alternative for Huawei was China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), which many analysts believed would deepen its ties with the company after fresh American sanctions. Yet, this seems unlikely now as the U.S. government is now thought to be closely monitoring exports to the company for the fear that they might end up in the hands of the Chinese military.
All these constraints still have not stopped SMIC from developing its products, and according to a fresh report out of China, it is well on its way to mass-producing an early-stage equivalent of the advanced 7nm manufacturing process node.
SMIC's N+1 Post 14nm Process Node Completes Tape Out For China's Innosilicon
The report of this achievement comes courtesy of the Zhuhai Special Zone Newspaper which covers events of the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone in China and Innosilicon itself. According to the details, the Chinese IP and chip design house has completed the first tape out and testing for SMIC's N+1 processing node.
A tape out is the final stage in the chip fabrication process prior to manufacturing that looks to iron out any remaining design kinks. SMIC's current latest-generation manufacturing node is the 14nm process and based on the statements made by company representatives, it appears as if the company will skip the 10nm node completely.
The N+1 node is widely thought to be an early stage variant of the 7nm process. Specifically, it improves performance by 20%, reduces power consumption by 57%, logic area by 63% and system-on-chip (SoC) footprint by 55%. For comparison, TSMC's 7nm process improved transistor density by roughly 73% over its 10nm node and provided around 35-40% speed improvement or 65% lower power over its 16nm node.
Due to the 20% performance improvement, SMIC's management has hesitated to classify the N+1 node as a pure 7nm node. Consequently, Chinese analysts have dubbed the process as '8nm' or an early, low-performance variant of the 7nm node. Following N+1, SMIC plans to introduce its N+2 node which is expected to be costlier than the N+1 node owing to its performance improvements.
In its press release, Innosilicon highlighted how it had worked with SMIC to ensure that the fab was able to break production bottlenecks for the process. More importantly, even though SMIC has completed the first tape out of its N+1 node, mass-producing products carries with it a new set of challenges which the company will have to overcome quickly and consistently if it wants to catch up to its rivals in the global semiconductor fabrication market.
SMIC's primary competitors in the arena are Taiwan's Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and South Korean chaebol Samsung Electronic's Samsung Foundry division. Both of these have been able to integrate next-generation Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithographic techniques into their manufacturing processes, and SMIC is expected to do so with what we have preliminarily dubbed as its hypothetical N+3 process node.
This node should be the third generation of SMIC 7nm and manufacturing it will test the engineering and management prowess of the company. Readers should also keep in mind that N+3 might just turn out to be an upgraded N+2 which commences production after SMIC is able to procure Dutch company ASML's latest machines for the purpose.
SMIC's rivals are currently either gearing up for or are manufacturing products on the 5nm process node, which is widely thought to be one of the last few semiconductor nodes before physical constraints for shrinkages become irrefutable.