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June 30, 2022updated 03 Aug 2022 10:47am

Samsung has won the 3nm chip race, but winning the war with TSMC is another matter

The South Korean company has claimed a chip breakthrough, but still has work to do to make ground on its main rival.

By Matthew Gooding

Samsung has become the first semiconductor company to start mass-producing chips on the three-nanometre process node, which will enable smaller and more power-efficient devices. But while the South Korean company has hailed the breakthrough, it is unlikely to tempt customers away from chip production market leader TSMC, which is set to unveil its own 3nm process in the coming weeks.

Samsung’s 3nm production line is up and running in South Korea (Photo courtesy of Samsung press office)

In an announcement made earlier today, Samsung said production lines at its Hwaseong Campus can now churn out chips which achieve 45% reduced power usage while delivering 23% improved performance and taking up 16% less space than current, leading-edge 5nm chips.

Initially, these will be used for high-performance computing, but Samsung says the technology will soon be ready for mobile devices.

“Samsung has grown rapidly as we continue to demonstrate leadership in applying next-generation technologies to manufacturing,” said Dr Siyoung Choi, president and head of foundry business at Samsung Electronics. “We seek to continue this leadership with the world’s first 3nm process.”

Samsung wins the 3nm chip race

Samsung and Taiwan’s TSMC are the only two companies in the world currently capable of producing large volumes of leading-edge chips at the lowest process nodes.

Both companies have been racing to deliver 3nm, with Samsung having committed to have its process up and running by the end of Q2 this year, and TSMC stating theirs would be operational in the second half of the year. Intel is also making moves into 3nm through its new production plant in Germany, but this will not be online until 2025 and the US company is currently getting its most advanced designs manufactured by TSMC.

Alan Priestley, vice president analyst at Gartner, notes that Samsung's announcement comes on the final day of Q2. "It means they can say they stuck to their roadmap," he says. "That's something which investors like to see, because if you slip a quarter the markets can start to worry."

Beyond this, Priestley says today's announcement is marked by a distinct lack of customers. Samsung's press release names four partners - Ansys, Cadence, Siemens and Synopsys - as initial users of the process. All these companies build software which is used in the design of chips, rather than the devices themselves.

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"Normally you would say if you had a customer using it because you want that kudos," Priestley says. "I think it's probably going to be mainly used internally at first, and it might even be that third parties don't start to use it until the next iteration of the technology."

TSMC is ready to enter 3nm with customers

Gartner's Priestley says demand already exists for the 3nm process, despite the fact that it will initially be costly. "Smartphone companies want it because we all want our phones to run for a week on a single charge like they did in the old days," he says. "Nvidia wants it for its GPUs, and the microprocessor industry wants it because they're chasing higher density. So there are companies that need it and can afford to use it."

But Samsung's hopes of hoovering up any of this business are limited, Priestley says, because most of the big players are already committed to TSMC. Last year Tech Monitor reported that Apple and Intel were both vying to be the first customer to access TSMC's 3nm process, but the Taiwanese company is more likely to hedge its bets as it seeks to maintain its market dominance.

"You have to make decisions about which foundry you will use very early in the design process," Priestley says. "So the companies that are going to use TSMC have already committed, and Samsung being a quarter or two ahead isn't going to make a difference. When TSMC does it, it will launch with customers."

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