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SMIC Mass Produces 14nm Nodes, Advances To 5nm, 7nm

SMIC
(Image credit: SMIC)

Chinese state media on Thursday said that Semiconductor Manufacturing International Co. had initiated mass production of chips on its 14nm-class fabrication process at its Fab SN1 near Shanghai, China, citing a local official. Perhaps more importantly, the report also claimed that despite being unable to procure advanced chip production equipment, the company is proceeding with its 7nm and 5nm-class nodes.

"With the completion of Shanghai's industry cluster for the 14nm chips, more advanced projects in the 7nm and 5nm processes will be accelerated," said Chen Jia, a research fellow on strategy, in a conversation with state-owned Global Times (opens in new tab).

14nm Is Here, So Is N+1 

SMIC has been talking about its N+1 fabrication technology (opens in new tab) - loosely considered the company's 7nm-class node — since early 2020 and described it as a low-cost alternative to TSMC's N7 node that relies on deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography tools. N+1 aims to reduce power consumption by 57%, increase performance by 20%, and reduce the logic area by up to 55% – 63% (for select structures) compared to a similar chip implemented using SMIC's 14nm.

Recent findings from TechInsights (opens in new tab) prove that Fin Pitch (FP), Contacted Poly Pitch (CPP) and Metal 2 Pitch (M2P) sizes of SMIC’s N+1 are larger (FP) or the same as TSMC’s N10 fabrication process, which might point to the fact that this is a TSMC's N10-like technology with relaxed rules (opens in new tab), but it is not. Extensive Design Technology Co-Optimization (DTCO) features and high-density logic libraries enable a logic transistor density of 89 million transistors per square millimeter (89MT/mm^2), which is comparable to what TSMC’s N7 and Intel’s 10nm offer, making N+1 a viable 7nm-class alternative (at least for logic, as scaling SRAM is tricky).

SMIC has been producing MinerVa Semiconductor (opens in new tab)'s Bitcoin mining chip since July 2021 (opens in new tab) without disclosing it. The company uses its DUV equipment to make those tiny ~25W mining chips. They are simple enough to achieve acceptable yields for commercial applications and serve as a vehicle to understand more about the process performance, power, and defect density (at least as far as logic cells are concerned).

"The manufacturing of 7nm chips in China is also progressing faster than expected," said Xiang Ligang, a technology analyst, reports state-run Global Times.

With SMIC's N+1 qualified and ready for at least limited production, it is evident that the company can live without extreme ultraviolet (EUV) production equipment which it cannot procure due to sanctions from the U.S. government. However, whether or not the company will be able to produce large and complex system-on-chips using its N+1 node is something that remains to be seen.

From a logic transistor density standpoint, SMIC's N+1 could be an alternative for TSMC's N7. However, the world's largest contract maker of chips already has far more advanced fabrication technologies that appeal to developers of highly-complex CPUs, compute GPUs, and various sophisticated data center grade chips. As a result, landing high-profile customers for N+1 could be tricky for SMIC. Remember that to serve Huawei's HiSilicon (probably the largest chip developer in China); it will need to obtain an export license from the U.S., as many tools used at SMIC's fabs come from America and Huawei is under strict sanctions.

5nm from SMIC? 

SMIC briefly mentioned its N+2 technology in 2020. While this one is yet another evolutionary step from its 14nm node, China's analysts seem to label it a '5nm-class' technology since it is one step ahead of N+1, considered a '7nm-class' node. However, DUV tools with 193nm ArF laser have known limitations regarding resolution, and intensive usage of multi-patterning to lower critical dimensions of circuits affects yields.

Since SMIC has been working on its N+2 node for well over two years now (and companies tend to mention new nodes when they have a more or less clear vision of their goals and ways to achieve them), it is reasonable to expect this fabrication process to come to fruition sometimes in 2023. However, since entering the U.S. government's entity list in late 2020 (opens in new tab), SMIC has been keeping a low profile on any announcements about its achievement. The company only said that it would focus on developing more advanced chip packaging technologies (opens in new tab) to enable heterogeneous integration and compensate for the inability to procure equipment necessary for sub-10nm technologies.

That said, it is very intriguing to see a state media revealing SMIC's '5nm' technology in its rather detailed report about SMIC's mass production of 14nm chips.

A Convoluted Announcement 

Truth to be told, SMIC has been producing chips using its 14nm-class manufacturing technology since late 2019 (opens in new tab) (one of the products is Huawei's HiSilicon Kirin 710A (opens in new tab)) at its SN1 fab. Still, while formally the process caters to mass production, actual volumes were so small that at some point the company ceased to report the contribution of the node to its revenue and merged it into one category with its 28nm node, which has not been a massive contributor to the company's earnings either.

Wu Jincheng, director of the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Digitalization, reiterated that SMIC had begun mass production of 14nm chips. He did not mention anything about more advanced nodes at a press conference on Wednesday, according to Global Times, which brought up 'independent' experts who spoke about N+1 (7nm-class) and N+2 (5nm-class) fabrication processes.

Since all interested parties already know about SMIC's 14nm capabilities, the state media report from Shanghai looks like a convoluted way of re-emphasizing the company's '5nm' intentions as the U.S. government's plans to strengthen restrictions against the rapidly developing Chinese semiconductor sector.

Anton Shilov
Freelance News Writer

Anton Shilov is a Freelance News Writer at Tom’s Hardware US. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.

  • jkflipflop98
    I mean, they're obviously lying about the node sizes. . . but so is everyone else.
    Reply
  • Geef
    China is well documented at lying about their advancements. Not really their advancements since the IP is stolen and given to Chinese companies who China says has 5nm.

    Right...
    Reply
  • traxxmy
    Its times to wean off from US. Might not seem much but at least an effort. I from dropbox>koofr, google map>here map. Making an effort to avoid stuff whether food or products with label "made in america" or "made in usa"
    Reply
  • RedBear87
    traxxmy said:
    Its times to wean off from US. Might not seem much but at least an effort. I from dropbox>koofr, google map>here map. Making an effort to avoid stuff whether food or products with label "made in america" or "made in usa"
    It's not really a matter of choice for the Chinese and others at this point, since America started weaponising intellectual properties, they're really left with little alternatives. For a private company not having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, would be better, even if it meant using US technologies/products (plenty of Chinese smartphone makers use Qualcomm chips, for instance). The hilarious thing is that it's actually working against American companies as well, because the rest of the world doesn't care about the US attempt at destroying the Chinese semiconductor industry and keeps engaging with Chinese companies in defining new standard, recently they had to ease the sanctions against Huawei because of that.
    Reply
  • turretgun
    As an engineer who works in the semiconductor industry in China, I disagree with you, outside people do not know how good the CCP is at propaganda, Chines chips industry is in a total mess now, the following report from SCMP is true: https://www.scmp.com/tech/tech-trends/article/3192634/tech-war-record-number-chinese-chip-firms-going-out-business-sign
    Reply
  • jasonf2
    RedBear87 said:
    It's not really a matter of choice for the Chinese and others at this point, since America started weaponising intellectual properties, they're really left with little alternatives. For a private company not having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, would be better, even if it meant using US technologies/products (plenty of Chinese smartphone makers use Qualcomm chips, for instance). The hilarious thing is that it's actually working against American companies as well, because the rest of the world doesn't care about the US attempt at destroying the Chinese semiconductor industry and keeps engaging with Chinese companies in defining new standard, recently they had to ease the sanctions against Huawei because of that.
    Quite frankly I don't see any of it as weaponization. China's long track record of human rights violations, currency manipulation, ignoring international patent laws, noncompetitive trade practices, current situation with Taiwan, military expansionism and an ideology that is in conflict with the western world leaves it in the position it is in today. That is just to name a few. The globalization of western supply chains and the willing blind eye of the corporate world has led us here. The costs of doing business with a government that literally is building itself up to take over the world in order to exploit the cheapest possible price and greatest profit were never factored in, though they should have been, as they should be now. China, in contrast with what they would like you to believe, is not an open market to the west, but a systematically controlled mechanism that creates a playing field where the government controls everything and lets just enough in to feign participation.
    Reply
  • RedBear87
    jasonf2 said:
    Quite frankly I don't see any of it as weaponization. China's long track record of human rights violations, currency manipulation, ignoring international patent laws, noncompetitive trade practices, current situation with Taiwan, military expansionism and an ideology that is in conflict with the western world leaves it in the position it is in today. That is just to name a few. The globalization of western supply chains and the willing blind eye of the corporate world has led us here. The costs of doing business with a government that literally is building itself up to take over the world in order to exploit the cheapest possible price and greatest profit were never factored in, though they should have been, as they should be now. China, in contrast with what they would like you to believe, is not an open market to the west, but a systematically controlled mechanism that creates a playing field where the government controls everything and lets just enough in to feign participation.
    Quite honestly, no matter your rationalisation and justifications, the approach taken by the US amounts to weaponisation of intellectual properties. It's not like the US didn't take over the world in different ways before, I don't see how America is in any position to criticise them for trying to do the same. If America wants war they'd better get prepared for that, you should know about Thucydides trap and all that stuff.
    Reply
  • traxxmy
    jasonf2 said:
    Quite frankly I don't see any of it as weaponization. China's long track record of human rights violations, currency manipulation, ignoring international patent laws, noncompetitive trade practices, current situation with Taiwan, military expansionism and an ideology that is in conflict with the western world leaves it in the position it is in today. That is just to name a few. The globalization of western supply chains and the willing blind eye of the corporate world has led us here. The costs of doing business with a government that literally is building itself up to take over the world in order to exploit the cheapest possible price and greatest profit were never factored in, though they should have been, as they should be now. China, in contrast with what they would like you to believe, is not an open market to the west, but a systematically controlled mechanism that creates a playing field where the government controls everything and lets just enough in to feign participation
    US always justifies its war monger action by claiming the problem is with competitors when it is US itself that have other sneaky intention, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and if not mistaken previously europe also
    Reply
  • jasonf2
    I think Churchill put it best. "We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." Given the choice between the US and China I pick the US every time. Not because our democratic republic isn't messy and inefficient, but because it is. The ideals of human rights are the product of centuries of tyranny by governments who were not held accountable by their populations. That is until they were, often with deadly results.

    As this is a technical support forum I will be ending this conversation at this point. Best of luck to you in your quest to bash the US.
    Reply
  • sundragon
    RedBear87 said:
    Quite honestly, no matter your rationalisation and justifications, the approach taken by the US amounts to weaponisation of intellectual properties. It's not like the US didn't take over the world in different ways before, I don't see how America is in any position to criticise them for trying to do the same. If America wants war they'd better get prepared for that, you should know about Thucydides trap and all that stuff.
    " weaponisation of intellectual properties" which translates to protecting intellectual property... You know when a country (China) has spent zero money on R&D but wants to take advantage of other's work... We understand you clearly. What I find interesting is the brazenness of saying this is some kind of cultural war. 5000 years of Chinese technological advancement and contribution to the planet and less than 60 years of the cultural revolution has turned that incredible achievement on it's ear. It has nothing to do with cultural war and everything to do with profiteering at any cost.... Boop
    Reply