China is steadily moving towards achieving its goal of mass-producing 14nm chips next year.
"Despite the technical difficulties, there is still a great hope that 14nm chips can be mass-produced next year," says Dr Wen Xiaojun, Deputy Director, Institute of Electronics, China Electronics and Information Industry Development Research Institute.
China decided to work towards self-sufficiency in chips to meet its domestic demand and address the unprecedented shortage of chips after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. As a result, China has taken the lead in this segment by acquiring competencies to mass-produce 28nm this year and 14nm chips in the coming year.
Surmounting technical challenges
China’s growth in the semiconductor industry is not without challenges. Chip manufacturing is a highly complex process requiring great precision and typically takes several years to gain expertise and acquire specialized skills to mass-produce chips. Nevertheless, in spite of facing several technical challenges, the country is on track to realize its goal of mass-producing 14nm chips in 2022.
"The development of 14nm chips has overcome many technical problems: key equipment such as etching machine and thin film deposition have been realized from scratch; back-end packaging and integration technology have been well developed; hundreds of key materials, such as polishing agents and sputtering targets, have passed the assessment of large production lines and have entered mass sales," explains Dr, Wen Xiaojun.
These achievements have enabled China to cover the entire integrated circuit industrial chain system in China. Essentially, they have reversed the passive situation, which required introducing a complete set of processing technologies.
The speedy development of 14nm chip manufacturing in China highlights the success of its ‘returning’ strategy, which essentially involves the firms leveraging the already-established technological units to meet the general chip requirements. This allows them to focus on design and packaging optimization.
"China did not blindly pursue high-level manufacturing processes but ‘go back’ to the well-developed technology to meet the general chip requirements and pay more attention to design and packaging optimization. The strategy helped trading time for semiconductor applications and the entire industry chain," explains Dr. Wen Xiaojun.
Even as the Chinese semiconductor industry continues to move from strength to strength, it still requires financial support to further expand the production capacity of 14nm chips. Equipment like photolithography machines, cleaning equipment, or polishing equipment is not only expensive but also consumes a massive amount of water and electricity. Further, to ensure that production capacity is fully utilized, good integration work needs to be done at the supplier level, including raw materials and components, among other things.
Growing importance of 14nm chips
China’s recently acquired capability to produce 14nm chips is pathbreaking because this technology has the most market value today. Therefore, it can not only enable the country to become self-sufficient but also help the world address the unprecedented chip shortage.
"The production lines of 14nm to 12nm chips are in the critical importance of the semiconductor industry. 14nm technology or above can meet 70% of the needs in the current semiconductor manufacturing processes. For instance, the mid-range 5G chips are using the 12nm technology. Therefore, 14nm technology can basically meet the needs of the manufacturing process required by desktop CPUs," explains Dr Wen Xiaojun.
While the 28nm chips technology is already considered mature in the global semiconductor industry, the 10nm or above are cutting-edge. Moreover, only a few players, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Samsung and Intel, can manufacture 10nm or above.
According to statistics, in the first half of 2019, the entire semiconductor market was worth about USD200 billion, of which 65% of chips used 14nm technology. On the other hand, only 10% of chips use 7nm technology, while 25% of chips use 10nm and 12nm chips. This reiterates that 14nm has the most extensive usage today. Further, it has a great potential in Artificial Intelligence chips, high-end processors and automobiles. Several applications, including high-end consumer electronics, high-speed computing, low-order power amplifier and baseband, AI and automobile, today use 14nm chips.
Chip Manufacturers Must Work Hard To Continue The Growth Trajectory
There is a little doubt that China’s 14nm technology is flourishing, but even so, the Chinese semiconductor sector needs to continue to work hard to continue its growth trajectory. When compared with the established players, the Chinese companies still are unable to offer any cost competition. "As a latecomer in the industry, Chinese enterprises have to put more manpower, financial support, and time to stand out in the industry," says Dr Wen Xiaojun.
The demand for 14nm chips will only increase with the approaching 5G and AIoT (combination of AI and IoT) era. In addition, several new and innovative use cases, like smart cities, autonomous driving, remote surgery, Industry 4.0 and IoT monitoring, are all set to become mainstream, further adding to the requirement of 14nm and above chips. China must then accelerate the mass production of 14nm to take advantage of the upcoming market opportunities.