China is on track to make its own 28nm chips by late 2021, and 20nm chips by early 2023 without recourse to US fabrication technology and equipment. This is mainly due to progress at Shanghai Micro Electronic Equipment (SMEE) in developing ultraviolet (UV) based lithographic technology. Its first Chinese assembled 28nm machine is scheduled for customer delivery by the fourth quarter of 2021.

This could be a significant development in the context of China’s 14th Five Year Plan that begins next year. It is mainly focused on the goal of greater Chinese economic and technological self-sufficiency. An important component of which is building a ‘de-Americanized’ semiconductor supply chain.

It dovetails with the gathering shift to edge computing as the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) market accelerates. China is in the vanguard with the country’s early, rapid and widespread deployment of 5G.

UV is the enabling technology

UV circuit design printing, using laser beams, was pioneered by Holland’s ASML. It is the sole supplier at present of extreme ultra violet (EUV) lithographic technology – the leading technology for making chips at 7nm transistor line widths and below for among other things top end smart phone processors, GPUs and AI chips.

EUV is presently in use at the only two foundries in the world able to produce such ‘leading edge’ chips, namely TSMC and Samsung. Intel has struggled to get below 10nm in its fabs and is currently experimenting with ASML lithography.

Japanese companies led by Tokyo Electron and Lasertek have been at the forefront of developing deep ultra violet (DUV) light source materials, coatings and etching and inspection systems for making ‘trailing edge’ chips at 28nm and above. SMEE is using some Japanese components. China has a National project to develop its own EUV technology but there is little prospect of near term success.

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No dependence on US

Unlike photolithographic fabrication technology, the current basis for making virtually all the world’s chips, UV laser circuit printing has no dependence on US technology or intellectual property (IP).

The first SMEE 28nm machine is likely to be installed in Shanghai by the fourth quarter of 2021. It is expected to be used mainly to make chips for IoT devices initially, with follow up 20nm SMEE technology deployed to make chips for 5G equipment by the first quarter of 2023.

It is unclear how many SMEE or other Chinese lithographic machines will be in operation in China by 2025 to make a difference at scale, or whether there will be any EUV machines at work in China by then.

Why 28nm chips are important

Over the next decade, enabled by 5G and by end of decade by 6G connectivity, the power balance in computing will shift wholesale to the ‘edge’. Billions and eventually trillions of connected computers, armed with sensors and varying degrees of AI, embedded in devices ranging from smart traffic lights and fridges to autonomous vehicles and robots, will create the next internet or the IoT.

Real-time mobile or stationary computing will need to be done by sense aware, autonomous in-device systems where the real world data occurs.

Smart traffic lights will not need iPhone class applications processors, nor will Beidou satellite signal receivers, or even the brains for L4 autonomous vehicles.

For example, the second generation Horizon Robotics advanced brain processing unit (BPU) cores are made with 28nm technology.

Automobiles will become data centers on wheels; drones data centers with wings; and robots data centers with arms and legs.

The enabling microcontrollers, MEMS, embedded non-volatile memories, ML systems, RF, analog and power management chips will mainly require leading edge chipset design and packaging rather than leading edge fabrication technology.

If SMEEE can lead the way in successfully commercialising 28nm and then 20nm UV technology in China with domestic technology, it will be a signal first step in the Long March to ‘de-Americanizing’ China’s semiconductor supply chain.