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Memory king Samsung takes on TSMC in 5G chips

South Korean chipmaker hopes to dethrone Taiwan foundry giant by 2030

Samsung's semiconductor business has been supported by its foundry operations, which earn annual revenue estimated at over $10 billion. (courtesy of Samsung)

SEOUL/TAIPEI -- Samsung Electronics is investing heavily in next-generation chipmaking technology as it plans dominance of the global foundry market, but it needs to dethrone Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. which has the expertise and financial wherewithal to keep its lead.

Samsung's consolidated operating profit for the three months through September fell 56% on the year to 7.78 trillion won ($6.7 billion), the company said in a statement released on Thursday. Its revenue rose 5% to 62 trillion won in the same period.

Operating profit in the semiconductor business slid 78% from the same period last year. However, against the previous quarter, operating profit is down just 10% which could suggest that the sector may be bottoming out.

While rival memory chipmakers such as SK Hynix and Japan's Kioxia -- formerly Toshiba Memory -- have been struggling to recover from a drop in prices, Samsung's semiconductor business has been supported by its foundry operations, which bring in an estimated $10 billion-plus in annual revenue. Revenue from this business rose 14% last quarter from the previous three months.

The South Korean company plans to build up the rest of its semiconductor operations as a central earnings driver alongside its memory business, which can be volatile. It announced in April plans to invest an average of 11 trillion won per year through 2030 in logic chips -- including processors and networking chips -- and its foundry business.

"We will be the world's No. 1 player in the nonmemory sector," Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, de facto head of Samsung, said this year. The tech conglomerate is aiming to achieve that by 2030.

Samsung employs extreme ultraviolet lithography, a cutting-edge technology, in foundry production. EUV allows  many more components to fit on a single chip, vastly improving performance, capacity and power usage. Samsung has the benefit of being able to apply production technology from its memory business.

The company also expects the adoption of fifth-generation wireless networks to vastly expand the market for high-performance chips, creating new demand that TSMC cannot fulfill on its own.EUV is expected to be used in the production of advanced chips that have 5G capabilities.  

Samsung is building an EUV production line at its Hwaseong fabrication facilities outside Seoul, slated to go online as soon as early 2020. The line will produce top-drawer smartphone processors for U.S.-based Qualcomm, according to an industry insider.

Samsung has already been using EUV for its own smartphone processors since spring this year. It claims chip performance improvements of 20% to 30% compared with the current production process.

But to become the leader in the foundry market, Samsung must overtake TSMC, which controls half the market and is the only other chipmaker besides Intel that uses EUV.

The Taiwanese chipmaker is already using EUV to churn out a steady supply of 7-nanometer chips. In a sign of confidence in its technology, TSMC said in an earnings call this month that it would boost capital expenditure this year to between $14 billion and $15 billion, from the original $10 billion to $11 billion. With orders already secured for cutting-edge chips for Apple's next iPhone, its position looks secure.

TSMC's edge lies not only in steady investment in manufacturing equipment and technology, but also the thousands of engineers in its design department. It helps customers develop the chips they need while serving as a bridge to in-house production.

Samsung, which works mainly with commoditized memory chips, lacks this diversity of experience. This may be why the company set a 2030 target to become No. 1, giving it a decade to cultivate the necessary design expertise. Samsung has been luring engineers from Silicon Valley and elsewhere to this end.

But the Japanese government's controls on exports of chipmaking materials to South Korea present a potential snag. Among the affected materials is EUV resist, which is essential to Samsung's plans and difficult to source from elsewhere.

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