According to the semiconductor industry on April 5, Samsung Electronics completed the development of a seven-nanometer foundry process using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) equipment. One nanometer (nm) equals one billionth of one meter. The Korean semiconductor giant originally intended to complete the development of the process in the second half of this year, but finished it six months earlier. Mass production will start this year. It was reported that Qualcomm was preparing samples to supply large volume of mobile application processors (APs) to Qualcomm, the first corporate customer.
At the same time, Samsung Electronics also started the development of a five-nm foundry process and the construction of an EUV-only line in Hwaseong, Korea. The company has also fought a speed battle that were shown in memory semiconductors at the foundry. Based on its overwhelming technology and production capability, Samsung Electronics has set its goal of holding the TSMC in Taiwan and climbing to the top of the foundry industry.
Samsung Electronics has prepared conditions for seven-nm foundry production by introducing EUV equipment to Hwaseong S3 Line since last year. "Samsung developers who participated in the development of the seven-nm process have completed their missions and moved to five-nm process development," said an official of the semiconductor industry. "I understand that they can share design databases (DBs) necessary for sample production with customers such as Qualcomm."
Samsung Electronics decided to utilize EUV equipment in seven-or-fewer-nm processes in order to boost its competitiveness in fine processing. One piece of EUV equipment is priced at 200 billion won so it is a big burden to secure EUV equipment and using EUV equipment requires highly technical skills. EUV equipment can draw more complex circuits as its wavelength is short but requires extremely high accuracy.
In spite of such EUV risk, Samsung Electronics succeeded in purchasing more than 10 pieces of EUV equipment and using them in a stable manner. The company secured Qualcomm as its first customer. Samsung Electronics is reported to produce the Snapdragon 855, a mobile AP for 5G mobile telecommunication through a 7nm process. The semiconductor industry expects Samsung Electronics to produce the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 by the end of this year or early next year.
Samsung Electronics is publicizing seven-nm process technology to its customers. A seven-nm process can make a product area 40% smaller than a ten-nm process. In addition, the former can improve performance 10% and realizes 35% higher power efficiency when performance is the same. This means that Samsung Electronics will be able to make the most advanced semiconductors for mobile devices, networks, servers and cryptocurrency mining. "A seven-nm process enables mobile device manufacturers to load mobile devices with larger batteries or implement slim design," a Samsung Electronics official said.
Samsung Electronics also started developing five-nm process. Within next year, the company will complete the development of a five-nm process and finish preparing to produce five-nm products at the same time as mass production of seven-nm products at Hwaseong S3 Line. Then, the EUV-only line under construction in Hwaseong will start production based on seven-, six- and five-nm processes starting in 2020.
Samsung's foundry speed battle aims to beat Taiwan's TSMC. TSMC landed orders from Qualcomm among others while going ahead of Samsung Electronics in a seven-nm process. Next year, TSMC is planning to complete the development of an EUV-based seven-nm process like Samsung Electronics. Competition for ultra-fine processes is intensifying. For example, Global Foundry ranking second in the foundry industry decided to use EUV equipment in its seven-nm process.
Under these circumstances, Samsung Electronics will jump to No. 2 in the foundry industry this year, and eventually overtake TSMC in the long term. “We expect to achieve solid growth in sales and take second place in the foundry business this year,” said a representative of Samsung Electronics in an earnings conference call in January. “After the development of the seven-nm process, mass production of second generation ten-nm products will begin in earnest and elevate performances.”
Semiconductor experts say that Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics has a great interest in the foundry business. This is because vice chairman Lee emphasizes future growth engines of the 4th industrial revolution such as artificial intelligence (AI), cryptocurrencies and autonomous driving cars and ultra fine system semiconductors are at the center of the future growth engines.