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TrendForce Expects SMIC to See Benefits from Its Alliance with Qualcomm, Huawei and imec in 3~5 Years

25 June 2015 Semiconductors TrendForce

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China's leading semiconductor foundry, has announced it will set up an equity joint venture company that focuses on developing the next-generation CMOS logic technology. SMIC’s partners include Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Belgian nano-electronic research institute imec, and Qualcomm’s affiliate company Qualcomm Global Trading Pte. Ltd. All of the participants signed the agreement on June 23. 

Known as SMIC Advanced Technology Research & Development (Shanghai) Corporation, this joint venture’s mission is to become the most advanced R&D center for integrated circuit (IC) manufacturing in China. Its starting objective is to design its own 14nm processes that will later do pilot runs at SMIC’s fabs. 

The scale of the capital investment and the distribution of shares among partners have yet to be revealed. However, SMIC is expected to have the controlling stake as its CEO/Executive Director Dr. Chiu Tzu-Yin is the legal representative of the joint venture. Yu Shaofeng, SMIC’s vice president, will also serve as the general manager of the new company. Huawei, imec and Qualcomm will probably have relatively smaller stakes. 

With the monthly capacity of around 140K 8-inch wafers and 50K 12-inch wafers, SMIC is China’s largest pure-play foundry. Its most advanced processes currently under mass production are the 40/45nm. At the same time, it has also teamed up with clients in developing 28nm. As for the 14nm, SMIC has yet to set a timetable for mass production. 

TrendForce finds SMIC’s partners for this international collaboration have the necessary expertise regarding 14nm manufacturing. Even with the right partners, however, it will take at least three to five years before the Chinese foundry giant sees the results of its R&D efforts. Besides the absence of immediate benefits, TrendForce also points out other issues with this joint venture. 

1) Huawei and Qualcomm’s conflicting interests 

While Huawei has established a long-term relationship with Qualcomm, Huawei’s subsidiary HiSilicon is one of Qualcomm’s challengers. The competing interests of these two companies will affect their level of commitment to the new R&D company, and this factor will spell success or failure for the entire project. 

2) imec excels at initial research of advanced manufacturing but has limited experience with actual mass production 

imec is the top research center for advanced IC manufacturing process and materials in Europe. Its tasks at hand include the 14nm node and the next-generation 7nm node. However, much of the organization’s work is related to initial research and has limited contribution to the mass production of advanced chips. imec’s early studies were also mainly based on 6- and 8-inch wafers, and there seems to be a lack of experience on the 12-inch. 

3) Obtaining HKMG and FinFET technologies will be crucial to SMIC’s R&D efforts 

Since semiconductor manufacturing moved on to the 28nm process, industry players have also been working transistor design that would satisfy clients’ demands for low-power and high-performance ICs. Currently, the key technologies in transistor architecture are HKMG (High K/ Metal gate) and FinFET. Whether SMIC will be able to obtain such technologies from its partners will be critical in forming its own R&D capabilities as well as stepping up its expansion. 

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