Samsung’s 7nm EUV Process Is Ready For Production

Silicon wafer

Samsung announced yesterday that its new 7nm node with EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography) is ready to begin risk production, just a week after TSMC made the same announcement. Despite the close proximity in announcements, our understanding is that the two companies are actually in rather different places as far as the overall level of technology readiness. TSMC chose to deploy 7nm on conventional lithography first before deploying an EUV flavor of the node, while Samsung is going straight for EUV. Both companies are deploying the new lithography technology in limited form at 7nm before hopefully moving on to more advanced deployments at the 5nm node.

Samsung is projecting significant benefits from its new process, with an estimated 40 percent improvement in area efficiency, 20 percent higher performance, or 50 percent lower power consumption. This is considerably larger than TSMC’s own predictions, but remember — TSMC is integrating EUV into an existing node. Samsung, in contrast, is deploying 7nm and EUV simultaneously. The company predicts that adopting the technology will reduce the total number of masks required for an SoC design by 20 percent. That figure should rise after EUV is adopted more fully. With that said, some have argued that the cost angle for EUV has actually been overplayed. Scotten Jones, President of IC Knowledge, has written that he expects companies to adopt EUV because it improves cycle time, reduced edge placement error (created when multiple masks are used, as in quadruple patterning) and for overall higher pattern fidelity.

An example of the increased fidelity we’re talking about. The pattern on the left was created using EUV, while the right side used conventional lithography. Image credit: Samsung

Samsung notes that its new 7nm EUV process is suitable for a range of applications, including 5G, AI, hyperscale data center products, IoT devices, automotive chips, and networking hardware. What’s less clear is who the company’s customers for this capacity might be. TSMC has locked up a great deal of 7nm volume and has stated it expects the node to account for more than 20 percent of its revenue this year. We know that AMD is using TSMC for its GPUs and CPUs, as is Apple. The last time we heard news of a Samsung / Qualcomm partnership, it was when rumors broke that Qualcomm had left Samsung and was headed to TSMC for its 7nm needs. In an article earlier this year, ZDNet noted that some Samsung IP blocks wouldn’t be available until the first half of 2019, though it’s not clear how much impact this will have on the types of designs the company can field or the companies it builds for.

This is all rather bleak for the announcement of 7nm EUV availability from the only company besides TSMC to offer the node to foundry customers, but Samsung has a backstop that a company like GlobalFoundries didn’t. Samsung, like Intel, is an IDM, which means it uses its own chips in its own hardware. In a situation in which the company has few customers, it can at least count on its own business.

That said, it’s not clear how much 7nm EUV volume Samsung will actually run. Right now, chips are being built in Samsung’s S3 Fab, with a new EUV line expected to be in service by 2020 (and presumably deployed on at least 5nm). We’ll have to wait and see if Samsung announces any major customers, it’s possible the 7nm introduction will ultimately focus more on creating the tools and ecosystem Samsung will need to aggressively compete for clients later down the line.

Now Read: Samsung Adds 8nm Process, Limited EUV Manufacturing in 2019, Intel Reportedly Won’t Deploy EUV Lithography Until 2021, and TSMC Announces First EUV 7nm Risk Production, 5nm Tapeouts in Q2 2019