Tired of losing battery power to get speedy apps on your mobile device, or saving power at the expense of app speed? Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing has a solution—a next generation chip-making technology called 7-nanometer extreme ultraviolet lithography.
This chip-making process will improve performance of smartphones as it allows TSMC to package 6.9 billion transistors in one tiny chip for more efficient processing of tasks such as photography, artificial intelligence and augmented reality. With such efficiency, mobile devices using these chips also use less power.
TSMC counts Apple as a major client along with Qualcomm, which produces chips for mobile devices made by Apple rivals such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics.
“With every process generation we have, there’s an improvement in power or performance,” says Mario Morales, a semiconductor-specialized program vice president with market research firm IDC in the U.S. But when battery life squares off against speed, the technology makes its users compromise on either the processing power or battery life.
How it’s supposed to work
The number 7 in the chipmaking process refers to the size of a cut in a silicon chip. Smaller cuts allow the processors to run faster and sometimes with fewer defects. TSMC uses a 28-nanometer process now, to name just one other line of technology, for processors in devices from smartphones to much larger home entertainment machines.
Extreme ultraviolet lithography lets light carve transistors in silicon wafers in a way that produces unusually fast processors. The 7-nanometer process using extreme ultraviolet, also called 7-nanometer+, will reduce power consumption by 10%, says TSMC spokesperson Elizabeth Sun. Phones and high-powered computers stand particularly to benefit from this leading-edge technology, analysts say.
“Most of the time, advanced foundry production processes are usually first utilized for high-performance smartphone and computer calculations,” says Kurt Chen, analyst with Taipei-based market research firm TrendForce.
TSMC expects revenues from 7-nanometer chips to “grow steadily” over the next few years on increased demand for high-performance computing, says Ethan Qi, an analyst with market research firm Counterpoint Mobile and Semiconductors. That kind of computing means AI and AR. This chipmaking process will help TSMC upgrade existing processors before its even more advanced 5-nanometer fabrication technology is ready, he adds.
TSMC takes a lead over other chipmakers
Before TSMC founder Morris Chang retired last year as chairman, he indicated the company now under co-CEOs Mark Liu and C.C. Wei would keep doing what it always does: refining the production process to make ever better chips for consumer electronics. That evergreen business strategy has enabled TSMC to dominate the semiconductor industry, with a 52% share of total industry revenue in 2017.
The 7-nanometer process, including the use of extreme ultraviolet lithography, will likely make up to a quarter of the company’s revenue in this year, making the new chips TSMC’s biggest source of revenue, Chen says. TSMC will roll out the more advanced 5-nanometer technology in 2021, he adds.
Continuity means success for TSMC because it’s a year or two ahead of would-be competitors such as Intel, Samsung Electronics and GlobalFoundries, analysts say. The 7-nanometer technology with extreme ultraviolet lithography marks the second time in five years that TSMC owns “the entire application process market,” says Wen Liu, an analyst with Taipei-based Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute. “This advancement will help TSMC secure dominance in the high-end semiconductor market in the long run,” Liu says.