The risks associated with the United States’ suppression of China’s semiconductor industry and the ongoing tension in China-US relations continue to permeate the supply chain. However, most customers of foundries are adopting a cautious approach, either maintaining a wait-and-see attitude or gradually introducing second sources to mitigate risks.
The operational conditions and challenges faced by China’s two major foundries, SMIC and HuaHong, differ to some extent. In the case of SMIC, despite being added to the U.S. Entity List as early as 2020, most of its customers continue to place orders with SMIC due to concerns about the time-consuming and costly nature of verification.
According to a survey by TrendForce, only one U.S.-based brand is actively pursuing a decoupling strategy in response to U.S. government bids, while other brands are mostly conducting risk assessments of their supply chains without fully implementing a complete decoupling strategy.
In particular, SMIC still maintains a competitive edge in terms of lower prices and the advantage of the domestic Chinese market, which keeps most of its customers placing orders and prevents a significant drop in overall capacity utilization rate compared to other foundries. Its utilization rate in 1Q23 was approximately 65-70%, and it is expected to slightly increase to nearly 70% in 2Q23.
HuaHong, on the other hand, is taking a cautious approach to address the risks arising from the China-US tension. HuaHong’s subsidiary, ICRD, primarily focuses on process technology R&D, with a particular emphasis on the 28/14nm process nodes.
It is currently setting up a specialized 28nm production line, which uses photolithography equipment from two major international manufacturers, ASML and Nikon. For all other equipment, Chinese domestically manufactured machines are being used as substitutes.
The planned total production capacity for this production line is 40Kwspm ( wafer starts per month). Considering the possibility of both Japan and the Netherlands potentially joining trade sanctions later this year, the future expansion plans for HuaHong’s production capacity are uncertain.
(Photo Credit: SMIC)
Samsung recently announced that they will ahead of TSMC in the foundry market within 5 years. At the same time, Intel also claimed to become the second-largest player in the market before 2030. Currently, both Samsung and TSMC are adapting 3nm process to do the chip manufacturing, with the technology of GAA(Samsung) and FinFET(TSMC) respectively.
Samsung sees GAA technology as a crucial key to surpassing TSMC. Currently, Samsung’s 4nm lags behind TSMC by about 2 years, and its 3nm is about a year behind. However, this situation will change when TSMC turns to 2nm. Industry insider sources indicate that TSMC plans to use GAA technology in 2nm process, and Samsung believes that they can seize the chance to catch up with TSMC since TSMC may have a hard time when turning to 2nm process.
Industry insiders have revealed that AMD has shifted some of its 4nm CPU chip orders from TSMC to Samsung. It is reported that AMD has signed an agreement with Samsung to manufacture some of its mobile SoC by using Samsung’s 4nm node, and Samsung may also manufacture AMD’s Chromebook APU.
The Fight in the Foundry Market is On
According to TrendForce, the top 10 global foundry players in 4Q22 with TSMC account for 58.5% of market share by revenue, far ahead of Samsung’s 15.8%. Industry insiders suggest that Samsung still has a long way to go to catch up with TSMC. Some sources say that TSMC’s 2nm process will be mass-produced as scheduled in 2025, while Samsung’s plans are still to be observed.
Intel is also striving for the top spot in the wafer foundry market. Since the beginning of 2021, Intel has implemented a series of measures in its foundry business after announcing its “IDM 2.0” strategy. Last July, Intel stated that it will manufacture chips for MediaTek, and the first batch of products will be produced within the next 18 to 24 months using more mature manufacturing technology (Intel 16). In addition, Intel said that Qualcomm and Nvidia are also interested in having them manufacture their chips. To regain its leading edge in chip manufacturing, Intel has unveiled its 5 process technology stages to be launched in the next few years, including 10nm, 7nm, 4nm, 3nm, and 20A.
And TSMC has no competitive relationship with their clients by not doing the wafer design, apparently, this is also a significant advantage for TSMC and other foundry manufacturers. In recent years, more companies have recognized the importance and highly profitable nature of foundry manufacturing, leading to the independent establishment of foundry manufacturing operations. Samsung and Intel have also followed this trend, as foundry manufacturing can optimize production technology and provide major companies with more opportunities for trial and error.
From the Entity List in 2020 to the Chips and Science Act of 2022, the US government has been tightening its grip on China’s semiconductor industry by blocking the export of advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The pressing question on everyone’s mind is: Will China’s semiconductor industry crumble under this pressure?
The answer, based on recent market reactions, is a resounding no.
Riding the Waves through Headwinds
Despite international semiconductor equipment manufacturers facing production cutbacks, China’s semiconductor equipment industry is thriving. In the first quarter, Naura, the leading semiconductor equipment manufacturer, reported a whopping 68.56%-87.29% increase in revenue, with a 171.24% to 200.3% increase in net profit. This has spurred growth across the entire Chinese A-share market for semiconductor equipment concept stocks such as Piotech, PNC process System, Advanced Micro, ACM Research and Hwatsing Technology.
This growth highlights a great leap forward in semiconductor process technology. Despite the adverse effects of the US’s broad-based restrictions, they have nonetheless created a favorable environment for testing and substitution opportunities. This, in turn, has enabled Chinese manufacturers of semiconductor equipment to increase their market share in the area of established semiconductor processes.
Full Speed Ahead: Aiming High for 5nm
In key semiconductor manufacturing processes such as thin film deposition, etching, ion implantation, CMP, and cleaning, Chinese manufacturers have already moved beyond traditional equipment development cycles and are progressing towards advanced process technology at full speed.
According to TrendForce, Chinese semiconductor equipment companies such as Naura and Advanced Micro(AMEC) are capable of supporting 28/14 nm in some process steps, and have even tentatively established their presence in 5 nm process technology.
Our summary identifies the main players to watch in thin film deposition, etching, and EUV:
Naura has achieved full coverage of PVD, CVD, and ALD product lines, with product lines matching international leaders such as Applied Materials, Lam, and Tokyo Electron. Naura has unique competitive advantages in the PVD field, with over 20% of its PVD equipment being supplied to Chinese 12-inch production lines such as YMTC(Yangtze Memory Technologies Co., Ltd), making it the second-largest PVD equipment supplier after Applied Materials.
Additionally, since 2012, Naura has sold over 200 PVD equipment, gradually achieving their goals for equipment substitution.
As the leading CCP etching machine, AMEC has successfully penetrated TSMC’s 5nm production line, becoming the first domestic etching equipment to break through in the advanced process area. AMEC has also achieved large-scale adoption in 64-layer, 128-layer 3D NAND process, and 1x DRAM process. These main product portfolios contributed to the company’s 47.3% YoY revenue growth rate in the first half of 2022. In addition, AMEC’s etching equipment also enjoys a high gross profit margin of 46.02%.
On the other hand, Naura is at the forefront of ICP silicon etching equipment. Its first-generation 12-inch etching equipment underwent certification for 90-65nm at the SMIC’s fab in Beijing in 2008. In addition, with the support of national research projects, Naura’s ICP etching machine has also broken through 14nm barriers and been adopted by mainstream foundries.
Photolithography is a critical process that China is strategically including in their semiconductor industry plans. They’re aiming to develop 28nm immersion exposure machines and core components through collaborative efforts: SMEE will lead the overall design and integration, with five or more companies providing key components.
Although SMEE has preliminary DUV exposure machine technology, it’s limited to more mature processes on 8-inch and 12-inch wafers at 90nm, 110nm, and 280nm, leaving a significant gap with international leaders.
From Toddler to Major Player
Although China’s equipment manufacturers are still at their toddler stage, the increasing momentum suggests that they will continue to make significant progress. Assuming that China’s policy support towards the development of 14nm and below semiconductor processes remains unchanged in the coming years, it is highly likely that the country’s market will fundamentally experience a transformation.
At this point, China’s semiconductor industry will enter a new era of high-speed growth, paving the way for the country to become a major player at global level. As China’s domestic market grasps the technology and commercial logic along the way, it will potentially have more influence over the global supply chain, as a result triggering a shift in the worldwide semiconductor industry in the long run.
On October 7, 2022, the U.S. government imposed export regulations restricting China’s access to semiconductor technology. In particular, the sanctions pertained to manufacturing equipment required in the production of 16nm/14nm or more advanced logic chips (FinFet, GAAFET), 18nm or more advanced DRAM chips, and NAND Flash with 128 or more layers. It’s evident that the U.S. intends to restrict China’s semiconductor manufacturing to 1Xnm. Moving forward, 28nm processes are likely to be included in the next set of regulations as some equipment used in manufacturing 28nm nodes can also be utilized in more advanced processes.
TrendForce predicts that upcoming U.S. export regulations will further focus on 28nm processes. Not only can 28nm manufacturing equipment be used in more advanced processes, but tight restrictions have forced Chinese companies to focus their efforts on expanding their 28nm operations. 28nm processes can be used to produce a large variety of other products: SoCs, ASIC AI chips, FPGAs, DRAMs, NAND Flash, ISPs, DSPs, Wi-Fi chips, RF components, Driver ICs, MCUs, CISs, DAC/ADC chips, PMICs, and other core components in a wide range of applications. If the U.S. allows Chinese companies to accelerate the expansion of their 28nm processes, China’s importance in the supply chain for terminal products will continue to climb — ultimately setting back the U.S’s efforts to decouple itself from China.
China still unable to fully manufacture 28nm chips domestically as expansion exhibits signs of slowing down
China cannot fully rely on domestic production for their 28nm semiconductors. If the U.S. chooses to move forward with restricting China’s access to 28nm manufacturing equipment, expansion will surely grind to a halt. China currently possesses equipment that is able to clean, backgrind, etch, and sediment for 16nm/14nm or more advanced processes. However, this is not enough for China to achieve semiconductor autonomy. Semiconductor manufacturing is relatively complicated as it involves thousands of processes; Chinese factories are only involved in a few of the processes — the majority of which depend on American and Japanese factories. All in all, with China’s semiconductor industry largely focused on 28nm/40nm and more mature processes, it will be difficult for them to achieve semiconductor autonomy for processes more advanced than 28nm by 2028.
According to TrendForce’s latest investigation, Chinese foundries have already suspended plans to expand production capacity for advanced processes after the US government began restricting the exportation of equipment and technical support for processes related to non-planar architectures. TrendForce believes that a further tightening of the restrictions on lithography equipment will mainly affect mature processes, especially the 28nm. Chinese foundries might proceed more slowly in adding new production capacity or raising output for the 28nm process due to the prolonged reviews on their equipment purchases.
TrendForce semiconductor analyst, Joanne Chiao, said that Chinese semiconductor companies have already suspended the development of chips featuring the GAA architecture (i.e., nodes that are generally ≤3nm) after the US government began restricting the exportation of EDA tools and related technical support. If we talk about the FinFET architecture that Chinese foundries are able to produce for now, it is possible to achieve the faster computing speed of the more advanced chips by combining multiple lower-end chips. However, it might also be very challenging to raise the production yield rate of a solution that integrates multiple chips, not to mention that the power consumption of such solution might be very high as well.
Seeing the US export control, for now, US government has not imposed restrictions on the exportation of technical support for processes related to planar architectures. On the other hand, Chinese foundries might halt their advanced chip (14nm) production at any time if they encounter an equipment malfunction or another problem that requires technical support from US equipment providers.
At last, Chiao emphasized that the US sanction has definitely accelerated the development of an “all-China” semiconductor manufacturing supply chain. Nevertheless, the world’s top eight semiconductor equipment providers all come from Japan or the US. From the perspective of the foundry industry, it will be hard for China to realize a wholly or mostly native semiconductor supply chain within the foreseeable future.