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China to achieve self-reliance in 28-nm chip production within two years

China is scrambling to boost self-reliance in its domestic chipset sector, and it looks set to accomplish that goal in the 28nm CMOS node first.

In response to US export rules preventing US companies from selling chipset components or manufacturing equipment to Chinese companies, China recently launched several measures to beef up its domestic chipset sector and mitigate the impact of US restrictions and blacklists, such as Internet Plus (IP) and Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development (AIDP).

In May this year, the US escalated matters with tough new sanctions, which triggered Phase II of China’s National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund to invest $29 billion in the sector – nearly double the amount of Phase I, according to Strategy Analytics. The goal of Phase II is to make China self-sufficient in semiconductor production starting with the 28-nm CMOS node, the most widely-used fabrication node for integrated circuits.

While 5-nm and 7nm nodes are the sexier cutting edge of the chipset world, particularly for smartphones, 28-nm nodes are in high demand for things ranging from cars to home appliances.

Li Ke of the China Semiconductor Industry Association said in an article that “28nm is the dividing line between low and mid-range end and mid-to-high end IC manufacturing,” and while China’s IC manufacturing production capacity for mid-to-high end chips has a way to go to become self-reliant, it’s almost there with 28-nm nodes.

“After more than a decade, China has a presence at every part of the 28nm-technology industry chain,” Li said.

The chief obstacle remains lithography machines, although Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), recently said that CAS would concentrate on the technologies that China is most concerned about, which includes lithography machines. Shanghai Microelectronics is reportedly set to announce its first 28 nm-capable lithography machine next month, according to Chinese media (although the company hasn’t officially confirmed this as yet).

“With breakthroughs in key technologies, we believe that entirely Chinese 28-nm chips, unfettered by foreign restrictions, will be mass produced in one or two years,” Li said. “China will have a completely domestic industry chain and become independent in chip manufacturing. By then, China’s integrated circuit industry will have advanced dramatically.”

A report from Strategy Analytics says that China is very likely to hit that target of independence at the 28-nm node within two years, which is good news for China’s electronics industry and its customers. However, expanding that independence to the entire domestic semiconductor sector is likely going to require some easing of US export controls on design tools and equipment.

“The central challenge to both the US and China is that the semiconductor industry is truly global in nature,” writes Chris Taylor, director of RF & Wireless Components at Strategy Analytics. “No single company or country can produce most efficiently without selling into global markets, and efficient production requires specialist companies in various parts of the supply chain located in other countries.”

In other words, both the US and China need to find the right balance between strengthening their domestic semiconductor industries and participating in the global ecosystem whilst placing adequate protections on intellectual property.

In any case, Chinese companies are busy innovating and boosting domestic chipset manufacturing capabilities on the assumption that self-reliance across the board is totally doable.

In October, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) announced its FinFET N+1 process, which has been compared to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)’s 7nm process.

SMIC co-CEO Liang Mengsong said in a statement that the N+1 process delivers a 57% reduction in power consumption, a 63% reduction in logic area, 55% reduction in System on Chip area (55%), and a 20% gain in performance (all compared to SMIC’s 14-nm node).

That said, Liang noted that the 20% performance boost makes it more suitable for low-power apps.

Later the same month, Chinese chip customization solution provider Innosilicon announced it has taped out and completed testing of a prototype chip based on the N+1 process. Tape-out is the final phase of a chip’s development before manufacturing starts. SMIC says this achievement “marks another step forward in China’s homegrown chip development.” Disruptive Asia

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