TSMC Announces 6nm Process, Risk Production Starting Next Year

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Taiwanese semiconductor company, TSMC, unveiled its new 6nm process node tech (N6). This latest fabrication process improves over the N7+ line, which uses Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography on top of existing 7nm process node technology.

The 6nm manufacturing process will also use EUV lithography, and according to TSMC, it offers 18-percent higher logic density compared to existing 7nm process node tech. However, the tech firm did not provide any information about the improvements in power consumption and performance that the newest process node technology offers.

While TSMC already unveiled its latest fabrication process, the risk production of chipsets using the 6nm technology will only begin in the first quarter of 2020, while the first devices with 6nm chipsets may appear a little later. According to the Taiwanese tech firm, its latest process node technology could be used to produce mid-range to premium smartphone chipsets, processors for artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, desktop GPUs, and 5G networking equipment.

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There are occasions that fabless semiconductor firms do not take advantage of the latest process node technologies due to the expenses related to designing chipsets for the newer fabrication process. However, TSMC claims that its N6 process is fully compatible with design rules that the foundry already uses for its 7nm technology, which means tech firms can transition smoothly to the newer process node without the cost associated in developing a new design for the smaller process technology.

The unveiling of the latest and more efficient process node technology follows a recent announcement made by Samsung Electronics about its newest fabrication process, the 5nm EUV technology. Samsung's latest foundry offering provides a 25-percent increase in logic area efficiency, a 20-percent reduction in power consumption, and a 10-percent improvement in performance compared to existing 7nm process node technology.

The subsequent announcement of process node technologies highlights how TSMC and Samsung Foundry are trying to one-up each other, as they aim to release more advanced process nodes ahead of the competition. Since chip designers strive to produce processors and modems with better power efficiency, the earlier availability of advanced process nodes may allow foundries to obtain some of the orders currently held by its rivals.

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Smaller and more power-efficient process nodes, whether they come from TSMC or Samsung, will become very important for future smartphones, as more handset makers start including 5G modems into their devices. Estimates show that smartphones with 5G capabilities consume up to 2.5 times more energy compared to LTE-only handsets since next-generation communications standards utilize robust software that requires more processing power. Moreover, higher power consumption results in increased heat production by the handset.

The newer process node technologies reduce the power consumption of chipsets by lowering the voltage that the processor or modem requires to operate. The lower energy use of chipsets and modems should help boost the battery life of smartphones, especially the devices that support 5G connectivity.

Moving forward, TSMC and Samsung aim to continue shrinking its process nodes, with a report emerging from China last year claiming that two foundries aim to offer 4nm manufacturing processes by the year 2020. However, developing smaller nodes are a capital-intensive process, with insiders noting that foundries plan to invest around $200 billion in research and infrastructure.

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