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SMIC, Huawei, Qualcomm, Imec sign 14nm joint venture

Posted: 26 Jun 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:SMIC? Huawei? Qualcomm? Imec? joint venture?

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), considered as China's top foundry, has signed a joint venture with Huawei, Qualcomm and the Imec research institute to develop its own technology for creating 14nm chips. SMIC advanced technology R&D intends to have its home-grown 14nm process in production in an SMIC fab by 2020.

Top chip makers such as Intel, Samsung and TSMC are expected to be making 10nm chips by 2020. Nevertheless, the effort marks a major leap forward for chip making capability in China that has typically lagged the West by two chip generations or more. To date, SMIC is said to have problems even with its 28nm process, a technology that has been mainstream among top chip makers for several years.

SMIC will be the majority owner of the R&D company. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed but the Imec investment is "very, very small," said Luc Van den Hove, CEO of Imec.

"This [joint venture] is structured as an R&D company that will develop the process to be used in a SMIC fab," Van den Hove said. "Imec provides support [developing] the 14nm process, very strictly following export controls," he said.

Tzu-Yin Chiu, CEO of SMIC, will be the legal representative of the new R&D company and SMIC VP Yu Shaofeng will be its GM. The 14nm node is the first target for the R&D company that presumably will work on future processes as well.

The SMIC process will presumably use the kind of 3D FinFET transistors common at that node. However details of the process were not disclosed.

Huawei and Qualcomm are ostensibly investing in the effort as customers guaranteeing future access to chip-making capacity. Qualcomm has been embroiled in intellectual property disputes in China for some time, a situation the investment may also be geared to ease. China has long tried to reduce the amount of royalties it pays by developing its own technologies.

"SMIC has been a slow underdog of UMC that is an underdog to TSMC, and this puts them back in the front line," said Malcolm Penn, CEO of market watcher Future Horizons. "It's impossible to chase this foundry market, you have to intercept it and this sounds like an intercept strategy to me," he said.

"We believe that this collaboration will consolidate the IC domain, increase its resources and capabilities, and thereby improving the overall level of China's IC industry," said Steve Chu, VP of Huawei."

The contract was signed some time ago. However a visit from Belgium's king in China triggered the official announcement today, Imec's Van den Hove said.

Although the deal has been in the works for some time, final approvals for the announcement appear to have come together quickly. Qualcomm president Derek Aberle was scheduled to give a keynote at the Imec event but was replaced at the last minute so he could attend a ceremonial signing for the SMIC deal at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

In a sign of the high government profile of the deal, Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China and H.M. King Philippe of Belgium witnessed the signing ceremony.

Imec and SMIC have not had a partnership for several years, since about the 130nm node. The Leuven, Belgium research institute that develops pre-competitive CMOS and other electronics technologies counts nearly all the top chip makers among its customers.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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