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TSMC to spend $20bn on 3-nanometer chips

World's biggest contract chip maker stretches the limit of manufacturing precision

TSMC’s Co-Chief Executive Mark Liu, right, presents an award to Gary Dickerson, CEO of Applied Materials, on Dec. 7. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

HSINCHU, TaiwanTaiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is planning to spend more than $20 billion to build the world's most advanced 3-nanometer chip facility, in Taiwan in the early 2020s, according to a senior company executive.

It will be the largest investment the Taiwanese chipmaker has ever made and highlights efforts by TSMC, which is the world's biggest contract chipmaker by revenue, to stay ahead of competitors including South Korea's Samsung Electronics and U.S. tech group Intel.

"This past September, we announced our plan for the world's first 3nm fab located in the Tainan science park [in southern Taiwan]. This fab could cost upwards of $20 billion and represents TSMC's commitment to drive technology forward," said co-chief executive Mark Liu at a company supplier forum on Dec. 7.

Semiconductors serve as the brain in a wide range of electronic devices including computers and smartphones. The smaller the nanometer measurement, the more advanced the chip -- but also the more challenging and expensive to develop.

Apple's iPhone X uses TSMC's 10nm technology in its core processor. Apple is TSMC's No. 1 customer, contributing 17% of TSMC's overall revenue in 2016.

In late 2016, TSMC revealed plans to spend up to $16 billion on a chip facility to make 5nm chips, a generation prior to 3nm, before 2020. TSMC is also looking to produce 7nm chips beginning next year.

The chipmaker's announcement of the record investment came as the semiconductor industry is debating whether Moore's Law, which has become a golden rule of the electronics industry, can be sustained.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore stated that every two years or so, the number of transistors on a chip will double, boosting the chip's performance. But this doubling is reaching a physical limit -- the transistors can only be shrunk so far, which poses a challenge for companies looking to create still faster, better chips.

For example, a single unit of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) equipment that is required for the future production of 7nm chips can cost about $1.2 billion.

Right now in the global semiconductor industry, only TSMC, Intel and Samsung Electronics have the capacity to allocate some $10 billion yearly for chip development, according to analysts and industry executives.

TSMC's Liu said in late 2016 that his company had assigned hundreds of engineers to develop 3nm technology and research 2nm technology.

CHINA FOCUS Meanwhile, TSMC is accelerating the production schedule of its first-ever advanced chip facility in China, located in Nanjing, to the first half of 2018, to address robust demand from Chinese customers.

"The schedule has continuously been [moved forward] because of the strong demand. As it stands now, we are to start output in May next year, five months from now," said Liu, adding that all the equipment and tools for the initial production have already been stored.

Previously TSMC had planned to start churning out 16nm chips, which were used in the iPhone 7, at the Nanjing facility in the second half of 2018.

In 2016, though the company still relied on U.S.-based clients such as Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia and others for 65% of its revenue, sales from Chinese customers grew to 9%, from 8% in 2015 and 7% in 2014.

TSMC has more than 100 China-based customers out of its total of 470 worldwide.

Some notable Chinese customers include Huawei Technologies' chip division HiSilicon Technologies, major fingerprint chip provider Goodix, Tsinghua Unigroup's Spreadtrum Communications, as well as some emerging chip startups such as Bitmain Technologies and state-backed Cambricon Technologies.

HiSilicon often uses the most advanced and expensive chip technology that only Apple and a handful of others can afford.

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