For China’s semiconductor industry, 2021 may be a “time to turn” year.
In January, Trump, determined to block Chinese technology, lost his campaign and left the White House in disarray. So that there is no need to discuss issues such as whether the successor will “Xiao Gui Cao Sui” continue Trump’s policies. After all, no matter who is the president in the White House, the situation is much better than Trump.
Yesterday, another piece of good news came – SMIC has just obtained a supply license for a 14nm lithography machine, and plans to spend $1.2 billion this year to purchase a lithography machine from ASML in the Netherlands. After last year’s summer of turmoil and sanctions, China’s semiconductor industry appears to be back on track.
But the problem is: lithography machines cannot save Chinese semiconductors.
Perhaps the lithography machine is so special that we have regarded it as a synonym for the “life-saving straw” in the semiconductor industry. But in reality, a lithography machine is just one component on a long chip production line. There are dozens or hundreds of equipment on a production line. Simply importing a lithography machine obviously cannot fundamentally solve the problem.
When the public’s focus is all on the lithography machine, we unconsciously “out of focus” – we gradually ignore those that are as important as the lithography machine, but without it So famous semiconductor equipment.
As the saying goes, “If you want to do a good job, you must first sharpen your tools.” The semiconductor industry believes in “a generation of equipment, a generation of chips”. The level of semiconductor equipment determines the level of chips.
When people are still worrying about “Chinese chips”, the focus of the old drivers has long been on companies such as North Huachuang and Shanghai Microelectronics. To paraphrase the famous saying – “Don’t ask how the chip is, ask how the device is!”
How complex is the semiconductor equipment system?
Semiconductor equipment is an extremely complex system.
Conventionally, large fabs such as TSMC and SMIC often divide seven separate areas to complete different processes of chip manufacturing. In different areas, the corresponding equipment and materials are also not available. same.
The seven areas are: Thermal Process, Photo-lithography, Etch, Ion implant, Dielectric deposition, CMP, and Metalization ).
Specifically, each area needs the following equipment to complete the corresponding process:
Roughly speaking, there are at least 20 kinds of semiconductor equipment, and the lithography machine is just one of them. “One generation of equipment, one generation of chips”, in addition to lithography machines, other equipment also needs to reach a sufficiently advanced level to meet the needs of advanced process technology chip production.
Take SMIC’s T3 12-inch integrated circuit production line project in Tianjin as an example:
In a mature production line with a monthly output of 10,000 12-inch wafers, 22 diffusion equipment, 42 CVD equipment, 15 gluing and degumming equipment, 8 lithography machines, and etching equipment are needed. 25 sets, 13 sets of ion implantation equipment, 24 sets of PVD equipment, 12 sets of grinding and polishing equipment, 17 sets of cleaning equipment, 50 sets of testing equipment, 33 sets of testing equipment, and 17 sets of other various equipment.
Therefore, the semiconductor industry is an uncompromising asset-heavy industry – the money is basically used to buy equipment. The above-mentioned wafer processing equipment is the most important part of the equipment, accounting for 80% of the total equipment investment.
If only there are many types of equipment, it is not surprising. But as today’s chip manufacturing process is getting more and more physical limit, as big factories like TSMC and Samsung start trial production of 5nm process chips, the complexity of chip processing technology is getting higher and higher, and the required processes are also getting more and more more.
Especially when the manufacturing process reaches below 22nm, the traditional immersion lithography technology is powerless, and multiple exposure technology must be used. Therefore, the process steps of the entire chip directly broke through the 1000-step mark.
The number of processes has increased, the process has become more complex, and the production time has been extended – in order to ensure production capacity, the factory must install more equipment on the production line. Therefore, under the same production capacity, the number of equipment required for an advanced process production line is much higher than that of a non-advanced process production line.
At present, the technological process of most products in China’s domestic fabs is still relatively backward. Even for a leading fab like SMIC, products with 14nm/28nm process only account for 14.6%, and the majority of products are still products with processes above 45nm.
From this, we can also infer that domestic fabs do lack high-end and advanced production equipment, and the overall level is relatively backward compared to peers such as TSMC and Samsung.
At a time when the external blockade is becoming more and more severe, if the domestic semiconductor equipment industry cannot provide enough advanced equipment, then domestic fabs will not be able to produce more advanced chips.
Development of domestic semiconductor equipment
Based on the information in the above figure, we can probably draw the following two conclusions:
First, the industrial chain of China’s semiconductor equipment is complete. Diffusion, lithography, etching, thin film growth… We can produce all kinds of core equipment in the semiconductor industry.
Second, Chinese semiconductors are 1-2 generations behind foreign countries as a whole, and some products are more than 3 generations behind. The international leading level has reached 7nm, and our overall level is still at 28nm. A few products have reached the international advanced level (China Micro semiconductor etching machine), while a few other products are 3 generations behind foreign countries (domestic lithography machine).
To be honest, I was very relieved that this result was finally analyzed – it doesn’t matter if you are backward, it’s just a matter of being partial. Although our current level is not as good as that of old semiconductor powerhouses like the United States and Japan, the integrity of our industry is not weak compared with theirs.
Today, the process of integrated circuits is getting closer and closer to the limit of physics. Every step forward requires great efforts, and the research speed of foreign manufacturers has slowed down. Objectively speaking, China’s semiconductor industry has obtained a very short and valuable window period.
As long as we continue to persevere, sooner or later we will catch up.
U.S. sanctions are like a spring – when you are strong, they are weak, and when you are weak, they are strong. An advanced piece of equipment, and if we don’t have it, the stick of sanctions and blockade will fall on the head. And if we have it, the other party will instantly lift the restriction.
On February 4, 2015, the Bureau of Industry and Security under the U.S. Department of Commerce signed an order to lift the “etching machine ban” against China on the grounds that “China has de facto obtained It is meaningless to continue to implement national security export control measures for etching equipment with the same quantity and quality as U.S. products.”
We have the confidence to catch up with the world’s advanced level, and we also know that as long as we can do it ourselves, the ban will be lifted. Then, there is only one problem facing Chinese semiconductor equipment companies – how to catch up with the advanced level as soon as possible.
Epilogue: How to Catch Up
The development speed and R&D strength of China’s semiconductor equipment industry are very strong. In fact, we do not need to worry about the level of Chinese researchers and the support of national policies.
The thing that Chinese semiconductor equipment companies lack the most is actually an opportunity.
According to Zhao Jinrong, chairman of NAURA, the strength of China’s semiconductor equipment industry lies in the speed of research and development and service quality, while the weakness lies in its late start and lack of reputation and influence within the industry.
The semiconductor industry is an absolute asset-heavy industry. The fab must be cautious in purchasing equipment. Once a problem occurs, the loss will be immeasurable. In addition, fabs have extremely high demand for technology upgrades, and must insist on choosing the most cutting-edge technology within their capabilities.
Under the influence of such factors, fabs are more concerned about the reliability and advanced level of equipment, and the key is to achieve mass production of advanced processes quickly and stably. Therefore, fabs have strict requirements on equipment quality and tend to buy foreign equipment that has already matured.
Due to the late start of domestic equipment, on the one hand, it generally lags behind the world’s advanced level, and on the other hand, it lacks reputation in the industry, so it is difficult to enter the procurement list of large fabs.
Major manufacturers such as TSMC and Samsung do not buy domestic equipment. After seeing the domestic fabs, they naturally “seek stability” and choose to buy imported equipment. Therefore, the market share of domestic semiconductor equipment does not look good even in the Chinese market.
The negative impact of this phenomenon is very serious – the production of chips cannot be started immediately after the equipment is in place, and different chips have different processing techniques. Dozens or hundreds of equipment on the production line, in what order, when to use what equipment, and how to use these equipment require complex and strict demonstration and trial production. Domestic equipment is not purchased, and there is no opportunity for trial production, so naturally there is no opportunity for rapid improvement in practice.
In the semiconductor industry, there is a close cooperation between equipment manufacturers and fabs – equipment manufacturers need to improve designs according to the first-line production information fed back by the fabs, and the fabs will also invest in equipment manufacturers to lead in research and development opponent’s equipment. The Dutch lithography giant ASML has successively accepted a total of more than 3.9 billion euros of investment from Intel, TSMC and Samsung, which is precisely the embodiment of this relationship.
Objectively speaking, the U.S. blockade has provided a perfect opportunity for Chinese semiconductor manufacturers. Since it is difficult for Chinese fabs affected by the ban to purchase foreign equipment, they can only choose to cooperate with domestic equipment manufacturers. The entire industry chain They are also actively carrying out “domestic substitution” – something that requires a lot of costs to be done under normal circumstances, but has been promoted rapidly under the effect of the ban.
As China’s largest fab, SMIC can only purchase domestic semiconductor equipment due to sanctions imposed by the United States. With the help of SMIC, domestic equipment has also improved its recognition in the industry, and major manufacturers will be more willing to choose domestic equipment. Now, many domestic fabs have taken the initiative to seek cooperation from companies such as North Huachuang and China Microelectronics.
Now, the products of domestic equipment companies have begun to show the iterative characteristics of “0-1-n”. After the breakthrough of the core technology “from zero to one”, the remaining “from 1 to n” improved progress will be Much faster.
As we said earlier, China’s semiconductor equipment industry chain is complete, and certain breakthroughs have been made in various fields, and the overall gap with foreign countries is gradually narrowing. Domestic equipment manufacturers are currently in the area between “from zero to one” and “from 1 to n”. With time, they will be able to enter the international advanced level.
China’s semiconductor industry is about to enter its own virtuous circle.
Now, SMIC can normally purchase ASML’s 14nm process lithography machine. This is not because Americans are merciful, but because SMIC has matured to mass-produce 14nm process chips.
The lithography machine imported from the Netherlands is the result rather than the cause.
The lithography machine cannot save Chinese semiconductors, but the wisdom and sweat of the Chinese people can.
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