China gets serious about microchips

Dr. Yungang Bao, Chinese Institute of Computing Technology

China is developing high-end microchip production at an unprecedented rate and mass production of domestic 14nm chips will be realized next year, according to Dr. Yungang Bao, of the Chinese Institute of Computing Technology (ICT).

Driven in part by the global shortage of microchips and massive increases in demand for high-end chips from fast-growing new technologies such as 5G and IoT, China is working flat-out to build up its domestic microchip manufacturing industry.

Dr. Yungang Bao, Assistant Director of the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently outlined some of the opportunities and challenges of domestic high-end chip development. He also confirmed that mass production of domestic 14nm chips is imminent and that industrial upgrade and replacement of core chips are the Chinese microchip industry’s next objectives. According to the predictions of many industry insiders, all aspects of the domestic 14nm chipset will be quickly improved, and it is very likely to achieve mass production next year.

Development of 14nm and 28nm Technology in China

According to Dr. Bao, 14nm chips will help the industry to upgrade core microchips. Many of the key technical challenges in 14nm chip production have already been overcome in China, including:

  • development of essential equipment such as etching machinery;
  • thin film deposition suitable for mass application in large-scale production;
  • packaging and integration technology required for mass production;
  • polishing agents;
  • sputtering targets.

Hundreds of key materials have passed the assessment for use on large-scale production lines and entered mass sales. According to Dr. Bao, these achievements now span the entire industrial manufacturing chain, providing a full array of process technologies for Chinese domestic high-end chip manufacture.

Chinese Manufactured 28nm Chips Now Deploying at Scale

The advantages of 28nm microchips in the new infrastructure are clear. For almost the same cost, 28nm processors offer a 50% increase in speed and half the energy consumption, when compared with 40nm. Considering these key differences, 28nm is fast becoming the mainstream mid-range process node and will remain so for many years.

28nm technology is the preferred technology solution in the fields that are vigorously developed by countries where Chinese manufacturers are major players. These include 5G, electric vehicles, big data centres, artificial intelligence, and industrial IoT. Both in terms of cost and chip power consumption, function and performance, they are the most cost-effective process node.

Importance of 14nm Mass Production to China

14nm is currently the most widely used high-end micro-processing technology worldwide. Key applications for 14nm chips include AI, automotive, and high-end processors. According to Dr. Bao, 14nm chips can also meet the majority of future needs in the fields of 5G communications networks, and high-performance computing. 14nm processors are also increasingly used in high-end consumer electronics, high-speed computing, low-end power amplifiers, baseband, AI, and electric vehicles.

Dr. Bao believes the mass production of 14nm chips in China will strengthen the country’s manufacturing base and lay the foundations for China to achieve a self-sufficiency rate of 70% in domestic chips supply by 2025.

China Must Adhere to Global Standards

As China seeks self-sufficiency in high-end microchip manufacturing, Dr. Bao believes it is vital that China does not diverge from global standards or develop chips that are incompatible with needs outside China. China must recognise that the global microchip industry follows clear technical standards which are intended to foster global collaboration.

China must continue to participate in global networks for innovation and collaboration for microchip development and must commit sufficient capital and technical resources to this activity, according to Dr. Bao. The current independent research and development within China must ensure it is fully aligned with global standards, market, and manufacturing patterns and must not result in the development of separate, incompatible systems.

The rapid development of China's integrated circuit market has promoted the progress and technological innovation throughout the entire industry. With the specialisation and subdivision of product application fields, the domestic technological level in the field of integrated circuit manufacturing has achieved a string of breakthroughs.

For example, significant progress has been made in the research and development and industrialisation of advanced and characteristic processes. This reduces the gap between chip manufacturing in mainland China and elsewhere.

Global Collaboration

Dr. Bao believes that, at present, the USA is the world’s leader in computer technology with a well-structured and comprehensive microchip industry, while other countries including the UK, South Korea, Germany, and France all have strengths in specific sectors.

The 22 European Union (EU) Member States recently joined forces to create a European initiative on processors and semiconductor technologies. These countries have committed to working together to bolster Europe’s electronics and embedded systems value chain and strengthen leading-edge manufacturing capacity with the aim of reinforcing Europe’s capabilities in semiconductor technologies and offering the best performance for applications in a wide range of sectors. The EU will allocate up to €145bn funding over the next 2-3 years to strengthen advanced chip design and production capacity in Europe.

China is aiming to build its position in computer technology. There is already huge demand for semiconductors from manufacturers and Chinese companies look to have diversified supply channels. European manufacturers have great opportunities in the Chinese market and Dr. Bao urges Chinese and European companies to increase cooperation in the field of semiconductors.

Improving Global Capabilities Will Accelerate Development

Beyond the development of 14nm and 28nm chips, China is also actively developing advanced process chips such as 7nm. This will alleviate China’s dependence on external high-end chip foundries in the future. However, success will not be achieved overnight and countries will need to work together to achieve success.