SMIC Graduates to Something Sort of Akin to 7nm

Article By : Echo Zhao, EE Times China

SMIC introduces an advanced 14nm production process as it tries to close the technology gap with the west.

Published reports that SMIC is preparing a 7-nanometer production process are incorrect. The error is understandable, however, as it is based on favorable comparisons SMIC has been making between its newest process technology (called N+1) and rivals’ 7nm processes.

With Donald Trump’s trade war nowhere near a resolution, Chinese semiconductor designers are shut out of the world’s most advanced manufacturing facilities. That puts pressure on Chinese foundries — particularly SMIC, the largest fabrication facility in China — to catch up. SMIC’s most advanced line in production has a 14 nm process. Had the company jumped from 14nm to 7nm, that would have been an extraordinary leap.


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That’s not quite what’s going on, however. During SMIC’s recent fiscal year report conference, the company’s co-CEO Liang Mong Song revealed a new version of the 14nm process the company calls N+1. A SMIC spokesman told EE Times China that N+1 was expected to go into limited production in the fourth quarter.

In comparison with SMIC’s existing 14nm process, the spokesman explained, N + 1 performance is improved by 20 percent, power consumption is reduced by 57 percent, logic area can be reduced by 63 percent, and the entire SOC (system on chip) area can be reduced by 55 percent.

SMIC says that in terms power and stability, N+1 is comparable to 7nm processes on the market, but of course those aren’t the only relevant benchmarks. SMIC reports that the performance of N+1 improves on in-house processes by about 20 percent, but that still leaves it at about 35 percent in terms of the market benchmark for performance.

Therefore, you can call it 7nm in terms of power and stability, but it is not as good as 7nm in terms of performance, SMIC said.

“Our target for N+1 is low-cost applications, which can reduce costs by about 10 percent relative to 7nm. So this is a very special application,” the SMIC spokesman told EE Times China.

The spokesman also said that EUV is not necessary for N+1. If SMIC is able to get EUV equipment from its supplier, ASML, EUV might be useful for the proposed next process, which SMIC is referring to as N+2.

EUV is the next-generation lithography technology. Samsung, for example, just opened a new fab with an EUV production capability. ASML is based in the west, however, so if the Trump trade war continues, it might be unavailable to SMIC, underscoring yet another difficulty for SMIC to keep pace with other leading foundries.

Echo Zhao is chief analyst of Aspencore China

Steve Gu, chief analyst of EE Times China, and Brian Santo, EE Times, contributed to this article.

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