TSMC Celebrates as Its One Billionth 7nm Chip Rolls Off the Line

Credit: Laura Ockel/ Unsplash, PCMag

TSMC is celebrating a recent silicon milestone — one billion 7nm chips manufactured. That’s good die, not total manufacturing volume, and it’s enough to cover more than 13 Manhattan blocks. TSMC’s 7nm foundries are, according to TSMC, running beautifully.

Whither Samsung?

TSMC states, “As the first company to bring EUV into commercial production at the 7nm generation, our accumulated experience allowed us to lead the semiconductor industry once again this year with volume production of 5nm technology, which is our most advanced process today.”

That’s an interesting claim, considering the split between Samsung and TSMC. Samsung, if you recall, pursued a different strategy from TSMC, with plans to build its own EUV node directly out at 7nm rather than making the transition in a one-two step the way TSMC did. TSMC’s EUV improvements at 7nm, which don’t use a pellicle and are focused on contacts and resists, were a limited way to deploy the technology initially, to give it a test drive before committing to using it in more steps of the manufacturing process at the 5nm node.

The Exynos 990 is in-production at Samsung on its 7nm LPP mode, which uses EUV lithography. But tests of that SoC earlier this year suggest it continues to lag the ARM Cortex family substantially when it comes to overall power efficiency, though Anandtech’s deep dive into the S20 Ultra notes that we’ve seen these problems in previous Samsung SoCs before. Bottom line: Samsung’s 7nm LPP EUV node isn’t competitive with TSMC’s 7nm in overall power efficiency, and appears to lag its competitor by 20-30 percent. This may explain why the company has landed so few public customers, though IBM committed to using Samsung’s foundries for its upcoming POWER10 CPUs, with shipments expected in Q4 or early 2021.

According to TSMC, the company is also in production in its N6 node, with EUV used to “replace conventional immersion layers.” This refers to layers that were manufactured with so-called immersion lithography, which uses water to increase the effective resolution of lithography tools. Adopting EUV allows manufacturers to somewhat simplify their production toolchains, although there’s already a need for high-NA EUV devices to continue printing smaller feature sizes. Alternately, manufacturers have discussed the idea of moving to multiple patterning at lower node sizes. One or both of these methods will likely be deployed below 5nm to allow for continued density scaling.

TSMC has effectively taken a leadership position in the entire foundry industry. With Intel’s 7nm having slipped out into 2022, and Samsung apparently having trouble matching them in terms of overall efficiency, the Taiwanese manufacturer is putting its own imprimatur on the leading edge.

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