19-09-2020 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Samsung has secured a deal with Qualcomm to manufacture its next-generation 5G chipsets. Who is able to make 5nm devices, what will the Snapdragon 875 chipset provide, and why are silicon foundries struggling to achieve nanometre sized features?
As of 2020, there are two major semiconductor manufacturers that produce 5nm devices; Samsung and TSMC. The ability to create the smallest feature sizes on a silicon die allows for the creation of the latest devices such as CPUs, memory, and signal processors. While Intel was often at the forefront of silicon fabrication techniques, their practice of binding architecture technology with fabrication processes has led to Intel being between 2 and 3 years behind in technological development. While 7nm devices are currently being manufactured by both Samsung and TSMC, both companies are already offering 5nm fabrication services, and TSMC have announced average wafer yields of 80% with die sizes of 17.92mm2 (with transistor densities of 173 million per mm2, that equates to dies with approximately 3 billion transistors). However, despite 5nm being available for initial production runs, both companies are already planning 3nm devices and hope to get volume production runs in 2022.
Recently, Samsung has secured a deal with Qualcomm to produce its next-generation 5G mobile chipsets using its 5nm process. The deal, which has an approximate value of $844 million, is the first time that Samsung will be producing all new chips for Qualcomm, with the first being the Snapdragon 875. Currently, Samsung produces 8nm devices for Qualcomm, but the securing of the new deal puts Samsung in a unique market position showing that it is able to take TSMC head-on. But this is not the first major deal that Samsung has secured; recently Samsung also secured a deal with Nvidia to produce its RTX 30 GPUs using the 8nm process, and Samsung has been said to be in talks with Intel with producing the next generation of devices while Intel continues to catch up in the fabrication business.
While the official statistics for the Snapdragon 875 are currently unavailable, reports from June suggested that the Snapdragon 875 was already being manufactured by TSMC, but the deal between Samsung and Qualcomm proves this wrong. As a result, any leaked information has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Like previous Snapdragon devices, the 875 will most likely utilise an ARM core, and the latest ARM core designs suggest that the 875 will have custom Cortex-A78 cores and a Cortex-X1 super core. This CPU arrangement would give the 875 30% better performance compared to the Cortex-A77. Other reports also suggest that the 875 will utilise the Adreno 660 GPU, an Adreno 665 VPU, and an Adreno 1095 DPU.
The deal between Qualcomm and Samsung demonstrate Samsung’s ability to close the gap between itself and TSMC, its only major competitor. While there are many semiconductor foundries around the world, only two companies can currently achieve 5nm, but why is this the case?
When shrinking feature sizes from 500nm to 250nm engineers had to improve many different aspects of the production process including the development of higher quality lenses, improve clean-room specifications, and refined chemical processes. However, now that transistor features are in the single nanometre scales, a whole new range of effects takes place including quantum tunnelling. These effects require a whole new approach to transistor design as well as exploration in materials to ensure that such effects are minimised. Such feature sizes also require different transistor designs such as Fin-FET which rely on partly 3D structures, and these can be difficult to manufacture. Single nanometre semiconductor features also require the use of extremely advanced lithography systems (such as those developed by ASML), and these are both incredibly rare and heavily restricted. Thus, only a handful of foundries are capable of producing single nanometre devices.
When it comes to manufacturing, China comfortably holds the crown for production of commercial products including smartphones, laptops, computers, and even semiconductors. While China do have semiconductor foundries, the US/China trade war has seen export controls on key technologies that would allow China to develop cutting edge semiconductors. But even if China is capable of producing devices that are on par with Samsung and TSMC, export and import controls on key technologies such as 5G and processing mean that western countries have to find manufacturers outside of China to develop such tech. This is where Samsung and TSMC can easily take advantage by providing manufacturing services without having to compete with state-owned foundries such as SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation).