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Chipmaker Tsinghua brings China's national ambition within reach

Huge memory plant looks to supply domestic industry and cut reliance on US

With interior construction on a factory building underway, Tsinghua Unigroup's massive memory plant is set to begin production by the end of the year. (Photo by Kotaro Hosokawa)

TOKYO -- Tsinghua Unigroup is on the cusp of a massive output expansion for memory chips, with another $100 billion in investment on the way, playing a central role in China's drive to develop a world-class semiconductor industry.

Around 30km east of central Wuhan, in a new, tech-focused industrial development zone, China's premier state-backed chipmaker is putting the finishing touches on a $24 billion plant. Operated by Tsinghua subsidiary Yangtze Memory Technologies Co., the factory is set to start churning out NAND flash memory chips, used in devices such as smartphones, by the end of the year.

In late May, workers were busy outfitting the interior of the first of three factory buildings that will fill the vast 1km-by-1.5km plot. Each day, around 1,000 people pass through strict security and into the construction zone, including plant designers and representatives of semiconductor manufacturing equipment makers.

The first building alone will feature half the capacity of the world's largest semiconductor memory factory, built jointly by Toshiba and Western Digital in the Japanese town of Yokkaichi. In a decade, once buildings 2 and 3 are up and running, the facility will be capable of processing around 1 million silicon wafers a month, according to Yangtze Memory -- 1.5 times the Yokkaichi plant's capacity.

Yangtze Memory plans to start producing 32-layer 3D memory chips by the end of the year, four years after South Korea's Samsung Electronics pioneered the high-capacity memory technology.

This is only the beginning of Tsinghua's ambitions. Plans have been drawn up for a factory in Nanjing similar in scale to the Wuhan plant. On April 11, at an event celebrating the start of equipment installation, Zhao Weiguo, chairman of both Tsinghua and Yangtze Memory, said the companies looked to invest at least $100 billion over the next decade.

Tsinghua's growth is a potent symbol of China's efforts at nurturing domestic semiconductor production to reduce reliance on imported chips. The company has bought up makers of central processing units and communications chips, and founded Yangtze Memory to cultivate its memory operations.

The push for self-sufficiency in chips seems set to intensify as U.S.-China trade tensions worsen. On a visit to a Tsinghua subsidiary on April 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the need for China to establish its own production of critical technologies, including semiconductors. The U.S. in April banned technology exports to telecommunications equipment heavyweight ZTE, and Tsinghua fears it could be cut off from chipmaking equipment suppliers such as Applied Materials. Recently, the company has approached a variety of equipment makers in Japan, Taiwan and Europe as alternatives to American heavyweights.

But financial power -- which Tsinghua has in abundance -- and technological prowess are two separate matters. Producing state-of-the-art chips consistently requires carefully refined processes involving hundreds of steps. While money can buy advanced equipment, crafting the ideal production formula -- determining how much of what chemicals to use or how strong an electric current to apply at each stage -- requires time and expertise.

To catch up on this front, Tsinghua has established outposts in Silicon Valley and Kawasaki, an industrial hub outside Tokyo, to attract the best and brightest from established companies. The company has already brought several hundred engineers to China from places such as Taiwan and South Korea.

"Chip design techniques at makers such as Huawei Technologies already rival those at American companies," said Akira Minamikawa, principal analyst at IHS Markit. By recruiting American, South Korean and Taiwanese engineers, Tsinghua is improving the production side as well. "Their yields will most likely start climbing before long," Minamikawa said.

Tsinghua is also working to get its hands on valuable chipmaking patents. Though talks to partner with Micron Technology of the U.S. ultimately broke down, the company is now sidling up to Intel. In February, the pair announced a collaboration on 5G communications chips, and "while it would be difficult for the companies to make any major moves during the current bout of U.S.-China trade friction, they are certainly growing closer," according to an industry source.

But the current brisk chip market is unlikely to last until Tsinghua perfects its technology -- a fact for which the company itself is partly to blame. Tsinghua's rapid plant construction threatens to flood the semiconductor market and sink prices, following a pattern set by Chinese makers of liquid crystal displays, solar panels and other commoditized technologies.

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