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Chasing China's 'Big Fund'

Posted: 21 Jan 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:process technology  foundry  FinFET  Moore's law 

China's Big Fund, which is intended to boost its national semiconductor industry, and the Powerball lottery have one thing in common. Both involve a lot of money at stake, attracting almost everybody, but no one has a clue on how to win.

China's largest native foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), provides a good example of the issues. It licensed 65nm and 45nm process technology to get to market quickly but lacked the rights to modify the processes to create value-added services. So, it co-developed 28nm technology with IBM, gaining flexibility but losing time-to-market.

SMIC's lead customer, Qualcomm, started using its 28nm polysilicon process last year. But the foundry won't start production of the higher value high-k metal gate version until late this year.

In June, it forged an ambitious deal to develop 14nm FinFET technology with three partners – Imec, Huawei and Qualcomm. But it is not expected to be ready until 2019, three or more years behind top chipmakers such as TSMC in Taiwan.

Sunny Hui

"We realise it is much later compared to leading competitors, but it's a phase we have to go through—part of the game is you have to chase Moore's law," said Sunny Hui, vice president of marketing at SMIC in an interview with EE Times at the recent Industry Strategy Symposium hosted by the SEMI trade group.

Meanwhile TSMC struck a deal in December to build a wholly owned fab making 16nm FinFET chips in China, undercutting one of SMIC's selling points as a local supplier to China's growing fabless design community.

SMIC's struggles suggest China should go big on a single venture with the heft to deliver leading edge technology in a more competitive time frame. But that's the wrong lesson, according to Hui, who advocates an approach sensitive to market dynamics.

"We welcome more players to build up the ecosystem because what we care about is whether the supply is created by demand," said Hui. "If SMIC can't come up quickly enough, there's no reason to feel bad about other players coming up...they will force us to work harder to accelerate our technology development," he said.

Indeed, China tried to dominate markets for solar panels and LEDs with products pushed to such low prices they killed profitability. State planners don't want to see a repeat of that pattern in semiconductors.

"We don't want to see increased capacity go to any one company," said Hui.

Last year, SMIC got about $400 million from China's so-called Big Fund to foster growth of its chip industry. The money helped pay for breaking ground on B3, SMIC's third fab in Beijing, the facility where it plans to bring up its finFET process. This year it is ramping 28nm and 40nm processes in B2.

Just how much money China plans to spend on building its semiconductor prowess remains to be seen. Analyst Handel Jones says he is aware of $30 billion that's been earmarked, others say as much as $100 billion in government and private funds are available.

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