Samsung begins mass production of 7nm and 6nm EUV chips at new EUV-equipped line
Samsung Foundry, a division of Samsung Electronics, has been going through tough times lately. At one time, it supplied chips for both Qualcomm and Apple, fabricating the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820/821, Snapdragon 835, Snapdragon 845, and partly supplying the Apple A9. However, over the last four years, Samsung has lost both Qualcomm and Apple as customers, as both companies have migrated to rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). Apple fully migrated to TSMC with the A10 SoC, and kept using it for the A11, A12, and A13 SoCs. TSMC got the order to manufacture the 7nm Snapdragon 855. This year, it seemed as if Samsung could get back Qualcomm’s orders for the Snapdragon 865 with its cutting-edge 7nm EUV process. However, for reasons that are still unclear, Qualcomm opted to go with TSMC’s 7nm N7P (DUV) process for the Snapdragon 865, while using Samsung’s newer 7nm EUV process for the mid-range Snapdragon 765. It was indeed a piece of bad news, but Samsung hasn’t admitted defeat yet in its battle against market leader TSMC.
The company recently won a contract to supply some part of the 5nm chips for the Qualcomm Snapdragon X60 5G modem, which will make its way in flagship phones in 2021. Now, it has announced that it has begun mass production at its “cutting-edge” semiconductor fabrication EUV-equipped line in Hwaseong, South Korea. The facility is named V1, and it’s Samsung’s first semiconductor production line dedicated to the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography process. It currently produces chips of 7nm and below (that is currently limited to 6nm). The line opened in February 2018, and began test wafer production in the second half of 2019. Its first products will be delivered to customers in the first quarter of this year.
Samsung says that the V1 line is currently producing mobile chips with 7nm and 6nm EUV process technology. It will continue to adopt finer circuitry up to the 3nm process node (which is currently in a design and testing phase). By the end of 2020, the cumulative total investment in the V1 line will reach $6 billion in accordance with the company’s plan. Also, the total capacity from 7nm and below process nodes is expected to triple from that of 2019. Along with the S3 line, the company expects the V1 line to play a “pivotal role” in responding to “fast-growing market demand for single-digit node foundry technologies.”
It has become a great achievement for the industry to reach ever-difficult new process nodes, and Samsung notes that as semiconductor geometries grow smaller, the adoption of EUV lithography technology has become increasingly important. That’s because it enables scaling down of complex patterns on wafers and provides an “optimal choice” for next-generation applications such as 5G, AI, and automotive. The company concludes by stating it now has a total of six foundry production lines in South Korea and the US, including five 12-inch lines and one 8-inch line.
The reason why Qualcomm opted to skip Samsung’s 7nm EUV process for the Snapdragon 865 to use a theoretically inferior 7nm N7P TSMC process and yet use Samsung for the Snapdragon 765 becomes clearer now. At this point, this remains only speculation, but it’s apparent that there were supply issues with Samsung’s 7nm EUV process. Even TSMC’s 7nm EUV N7+ node was used exclusively for the HiSilicon Kirin 990 5G in 2019. Samsung has only now begun mass production at the V1 line, which means that it was probably a quarter late to get a contract for the Snapdragon 865. It remains to be seen who will be manufacturing the upcoming Apple A14 and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 875 later this year. The company was curiously silent about progress on its 5nm process node in this announcement as well, so we will have to wait to know more about it.