Samsung Readies Gate-All-Around Ramp

Article By : Alan Patterson

The new process technology that provides greater transistor density is likely to be ready during the first half of 2022.

Samsung Electronics said it’s on track in the second half of this year to launch the world’s first commercial production of chips based on its gate-all-around (GAA) process. The emerging process is likely to provide transistor density advantages over the current FinFET technology used at the 5-nm node, where Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) rules the roost.

“We will complete the qualification of first-generation GAA process 3GAE for mass production in the first half of this year,” Moonsoo Kang, head of Samsung’s Foundry Market Strategy Team, said during a conference call to discuss quarterly results. “We will continue to develop the second-generation GAA process, 3GAP, as scheduled.”

The designations 3GAE and 3GAP are Samsung’s names for the first and second generations of the new GAA processes under development.

GAA transistor structures include gate contacts to surrounding semiconductor channels, and from all sides, to enable continued scaling. Both GAA and FinFET technologies are used to make 3D chips that boost transistor density compared with the older planar production processes.

TSMC is on track to roll out 3-nm chips in the second half of 2022 using an existing FinFET transistor structure. It’s a safer bet because existing EDA tools and intellectual property work with the FinFET process.

Samsung last year invested a record amount in efforts to ramp up GAA technology while gaining an advantage over chip foundry rival TSMC. The foundry business has outpaced growth in the semiconductor sector for decades.

Samsung’s capital expenditures for 2021 totalled 48.2 trillion Korean won ($39.8 billion), with 43.6 trillion won invested in semiconductor operations and 2.6 trillion for flat-panel displays. That puts the company’s chip capex at roughly $36 billion last year, overshadowing the $30 billion TSMC spent for expansion last year.

Samsung Electronics makes everything from chips to mobile phones.

It does not break out the portion of capex budgeted for its foundry and memory segments. The company also declined to provide a forecast for 2022 expenditures. TSMC, which focuses exclusively on the foundry business, earlier this month said its capex may be as high as $44 billion in 2022.

Both companies are buying extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography tools from ASML as a key part of the competition at advanced nodes. TSMC and Samsung say high-performance computing and 5G applications are driving demand.

For foundry services, Samsung’s investments last year were focused on 5-nm process technology using EUV tools at a fab in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

“Although we did not generate a surplus in 2021, we believe our efforts will lead to significant future growth,” Ben Suh, Samsung’s investor relations spokesman, said during the conference call. “Even though increased overall supply resulted in a new high for revenue, profitability decreased slightly quarter-on-quarter due to a rise in costs associated with advanced processes.”

Despite uncertainties related to continuing supply chain issues and the pandemic, Samsung aims to increase memory chip sales at advanced nodes to support demand recovery in serversand PCs, he said. The company expects its foundry business to outpace semiconductor industry growth this year thanks to increased production at advanced nodes.

TSMC this month also said it expects to exceed overall industry growth with more than a 20-percent increase in sales.

Industry watcher IC Insights forecasts the chip market will rise 11 percent this year, slowing from a 26 percent leap in 2021 and a 13 percent hop in 2020. Based on that prediction, global chip sales in 2022 will rise to a record $565.1 billion after topping $509.8 billion in 2021.

Yield Problems

Still, Samsung has experienced yield problems with its existing production technology at its current 5-nm node.

The challenge of maintaining initial stable yield has increased, Samsung told industry analysts. Despite a delayed ramp to advanced nodes that lagged company expectations, Samsung expects gradual stabilization.

Samsung for the first time is making 4-nm GPUs for AMD, which relies mainly on TSMC for chip supplies.

That’s emblematic of the tug-of-war for customers between the world’s two top foundries.

Nvidia is upgrading its GPUs from Samsung’s 8-nm process to TSMC’s 5-nm node, according to a January report provided to EE Times by Credit Suisse.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Alan Patterson has worked as an electronics journalist in Asia for most of his career. In addition to EE Times, he has been a reporter and an editor for Bloomberg News and Dow Jones Newswires. He has lived for more than 30 years in Hong Kong and Taipei and has covered tech companies in the greater China region during that time.


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