TAIPEI, Taiwan — TSMC, which has more than half the global foundry business, has overtaken Samsung in the FinFET race to commercial production that the South Korean company was leading this year, according to industry analysts. Both companies lag Intel, which is making FinFET chips internally.
"Recent developments suggest TSMC has taken the lead over Samsung at developing [16/14nm] FinFET manufacturing technology," Mehdi Hosseini, a San Francisco analyst who covers TSMC and Samsung for Susquehanna Financial analyst, said in an Oct. 1 report.
Checks with industry experts suggest Samsung's foundry has experienced a setback with its 14nm FinFET project, while TSMC's 16nm pilot line is gaining incremental confidence among prospective customers, Hosseini said in the report. TSMC and Samsung are in a tight race to provide FinFET products to their biggest customers, Apple and Qualcomm, each of which aims to offer improved performance and lower power consumption in smartphones with the higher-density chips. However, the development of 3D-structured FinFETs has been fraught with difficulty for the two companies.
On Sept. 25, HiSilicon, China's largest fabless company, announced FinFET samples for an ARM-based networking processor manufactured on TSMC's 16nm pilot line. Hosseini said the node will enter mass production in the second half of 2015 at the earliest.
Carlos Peng, an analyst with Fubon Securities in Taipei, says FinFET chips will account for a "high single-digit percentage" of TSMC's revenue by the third quarter of 2015. Initially, TSMC's main customers for the new process technology will be Apple and HiSilicon, followed by Qualcomm, MediaTek, Xilinx, and Altera later in 2015. Apple may choose TSMC to make the A9 processor with FinFET technology.
"Though Samsung indicates it will begin volume production of 20nm and FinFET at the end of 2014, the yield rate remains low as of the end of 3Q14 as the company is struggling to overcome a steep learning curve," Peng said in a Sept. 25 report. "Meaningful FinFET equipment pull-in for TSMC is likely in early fourth quarter 2014, which also implies potential volume production in the second quarter of 2015, one quarter ahead of schedule, meaning there may be potential for an upside surprise in the first half of 2015." TSMC's lead in the development of fan-out packaging may give the company an advantage in commercial production.
"We expect the combination of FinFET and fan-out to drive performance improvement among high-end logic products and ensure TSMC's market position for at least the next two to three years, especially as Samsung will require another one and a half to two years to develop its own fan-out technology, and another year to tape out the new integration products," Peng said.
Double patterning and leakage have been tough for Samsung to overcome, since the company's 28nm technology still lags TSMC by one year, he said. The technology gap impacts the schedule for Samsung's 20nm/14nm FinFETs. TSMC may need to revise a prediction chairman Morris Chang made in July: "In 16-nanometer, TSMC will have a smaller market share than a major competitor in 2015." At that time, Chang said FinFET technology will have wide application in baseband, application processors, consumer SoCs, GPUs, network processors, FPGAs, and CPUs.
Elizabeth Sun, a TSMC spokesperson, would not comment further, citing a quiet period leading up to the company's third-quarter earnings announcement Oct. 16.