Smartphone chip design house MediaTek only praised Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company(TSMC) in a presentation at the world’s largest contract chipmaker’s recent technology symposium. The success of MediaTek’s latest flagship processor “is based on the work that our partners at TSMC have done together with us,” he said.
TSMC Struggles To Stay Ahead
But TSMC CEO CC Wei winced when the presentation showed that its further miniaturization of the chip, to create circuits around 4 billionths of a meter wide, had only produced a 2 percent increase in performance.
“When I saw [that]I almost fell off the chair,” Wei said.
Chipmakers are challenging the laws of physics in their effort to make semiconductors ever faster and more energy efficient, to enable rapidly evolving applications, from high-end games on smartphones to servers that are used for the simulation of climate change.
Seventy-five years after the invention of the transistor, a switch that controls electrical current and forms the heart of every semiconductor, the principle that the number of transistors packed on each chip will double approximately every two years, allowing for growth explosive computing power, it is crumbling Reducing them is becoming too difficult.
“Only relying on transistors is no longer enough to meet our current demands and to meet [the requirements of] the products you design,” Wei told an audience of TSMC customers.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and later of Intel, noted that the number of transistors per chip was doubling roughly every 24 months and predicted exponential growth for the next decade. So-called Moore’s Law has held up for much longer than its inventor had anticipated (an IC device can contain up to 100 billion transistors today, according to TSMC), but now it’s reaching a limit.
This challenge of finding technical alternatives is making competition between the world’s leading chipmakers more unpredictable, although for now, TSMC has a clear advantage in manufacturing technology.
Its foundry business model of manufacturing only semiconductors to other companies’ designs has helped it capture more than half of the global market for custom chips, with more than 12,000 different products manufactured and close engineering relationships with more than 500 clients.
Previously, Intel squandered its manufacturing lead over TSMC with a series of missteps in its last two compute node transitions, and is now estimated to be about two years behind schedule. But analysts say that could change, especially as governments from the US to Japan are pressuring chipmakers to localize production with large subsidies that could favor Intel and TSMC’s other main rival, Samsung.
“[TSMC] could trip. As it gets harder to get to the next technology node, anyone could stumble,” said Chris Miller, an economic historian at Tufts University who has written a book on the history of the chip industry. “Or, if the next two process technology node transitions are more difficult than we expect, TSMC’s advantage could become less significant.”
Chipmakers have successfully battled the Moore’s Law slowdown for more than a decade. When they had problems packing more transistors, they started stacking them on top of each other. They’re also packaging different chips together on a single piece of silicon, rather than on a PC motherboard: TSMC uses this multi-die package technology to make Epyc, AMD’s data center processor.
But now, the industry is forced to look for other improvements. Since the so-called FinFET process used for the last decade can no longer offer enough gains in speed and power, it is adopting a new transistor architecture.
Starting with N2, the generation of chips that TSMC plans to mass-produce starting in 2025, will use a technology it calls Nanosheet, also known as Gate-All-Around (GAA).
Under that architecture, the gate of the transistor, which controls the flow of electricity through the circuit’s channels, completely surrounds the channels instead of being on three sides, as in the previous solution. This maximizes surface area and “allows the device to operate at very low voltage and deliver power efficiency gains,” said Kevin Zhang, vice president of TSMC.
However, the transition is proving difficult. Samsung, which tried to pioneer GAA in the N3 generation, has struggled to increase its performance – the proportion of non-defective chips that are produced. It began mass production in June on N3, just ahead of TSMC, which will start volume production before the end of the year.
Samsung’s performance problem is making it difficult to attract big customers for the production of next-generation chips. Analysts don’t expect its earlier adoption of GAA to help it catch up with TSMC any time soon, but said it could attract big customers like Google and Tesla once it introduces a second-generation GAA N3 process next year and ensure stable performance.
TSMC executives said their decision to stick with the old architecture on N3 is paying off. “It allowed us to bring N3 to market faster,” said Zhang. The company said it is achieving “good returns,” and customer demand for N3 is so strong that it is putting pressure on its engineering capacity. TSMC has commitments from Apple, Intel, AMD, and various other customers for N3.
Intel, meanwhile, has set an ambitious goal of matching TSMC’s process technology by 2024 and surpassing it a year later, though the continued decline in its share price shows Wall Street is still not convinced it can correct its steps in previous false and catch up with TSMC hasty technology advances by then. The US chipmaker plans to make a belated switch to more advanced EUV manufacturing equipment next year and adopt its own version of GAA in 2024, to produce a 2nm-wide feature chip.
But as confident as TSMC is in its leadership position now, even greater challenges lie ahead. Chipmakers expect that the key tools and materials used to make semiconductors for decades will soon have to be significantly changed or even replaced, and eventually the days of silicon itself, the industry’s base material since its inception, will be numbered.
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Abram left his e-business studies to devote himself to his entrepreneurial projects. In 2017, he created the company Inbound Media and wrote articles about high-tech products for his Chromebookeur site. In 2019, Chromebookeur was renamed Macbound and became a general purchasing advice site. Today, Abram manages the development and growth of Macbound, surrounded by a young and talented team.