Samsung Electronics will start mass production of 7 nanometer (nm) extreme ultraviolet (EUV) chips in June, the first time in the global semiconductor industry.
Samsung Electronics plans to ship the Exynos 9825, which is an application processor (AP) manufactured through a 7 nm EUV process, in June. The AP is expected to go into the Galaxy Note 10 flagship model, which will be released in the second half of this year. If this prediction is correct, it would be unusual, given that new Galaxy Note models have thus far been loaded with the same APs used in the Galaxy S models launched at the beginning of the year.
EUV lithography can draw detailed semiconductor circuit patterns more accurately with shorter wavelengths than conventional argon fluorine (ArF) technology. Samsung Electronics explained that a 7-nm EUV process can reduce the chip size by about 40 percent compared to a current 10 nm process and boost power efficiency by about 50 percent. Although TSMC was ahead of Samsung Electronics in starting a 7-nm process, Samsung was the first to introduce EUV equipment for mass production.
TSMC is also rushing to mass produce the Kirin 985, an AP used by Huawei, with a 7 nm EUV process. Like Samsung, Huawei rarely releases a new AP for a new product in the second half of a year. The Kirin 985 may be launched during the first half of the year to be loaded into the Huawei Mate 30 smartphone.
Kim Ki-nam, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, expressed confidence at a general shareholders meeting last month that the company would be able to mass-produce 7 nm EUV products ahead of its rivals. But there is a possibility that TSMS becomes the first company to mass produce 7 nm EUV chips by a few days.
However, even if TSMC mass-produces products ahead of Samsung Electronics, semiconductor industry watchers note that TSMC does not apply EUV equipment to the entire process, but to a few processes only.
A battlefield for the front end process is already moving from 7 nm to 5 nm. DigiTimes in Taiwan said that TSMC recently completed the construction of semiconductor design infrastructure to be used in a 5 nm process. TSMC, which has exclusively produced Apple AP for several years, is expected to apply a 5-nm process to the A14, a next-generation AP for Apple products.
Nvidia's move is likely to determine the fates of companies in the foundry industry in the future. Currently known 7 nm EUV customers include Apple, Samsung Electronics's Mobile Division, Qualcomm, Huawei and AMD, and there are not many fabless companies that are able to take advantage of the most advanced processes which are expensive. "We do not have a plan to launch a 7 nm graphics processing unit (GPU) this year," said Jensen Huang, chief executive officer of Nvidia.
Nvidia is likely to opt for a 5 nm process when yields become stable by the end of 2020. "We verified the performance of a 3 nm process and are enhancing the technology's completeness," said Jung Eun-seung, president of Samsung Electronics' foundry division in an international meeting on semiconductor devices. If Nvidia chooses Samsung Electronics’ foundry, its gap with TSMC can be significantly narrowed.