Foundry Arms Race Under Way

Accurate growth projections at each node, and the ability to invest enough CapEx in the right places, may determine who succeeds and who fails.


By Mark LaPedus
A year ago, chipmakers were reeling from a severe shortage of 28nm foundry capacity, prompting foundries to ramp up their fabs at a staggering pace.

At the time, foundries were unable to keep up with huge and unforeseen demand for mobile chips. The shortfall was also caused by low yields and the overall lack of installed 28nm capacity.

Today, the 28nm crunch is largely over. The foundries have caught up with the demand and customers no longer are feeling the pinch. And as it turns out, 28nm is a sweet spot for many devices and the technology will remain a long-lasting node.

However, the overzealous foundries may have expanded too fast. In fact, there are some signs of a possible foundry glut, and falling fab utilization rates, for 28nm and other processes in 2013. “I don’t see a shortage problem,” said Samuel Wang, an analyst at Gartner. “But overall utilization rates for advanced technologies will go down this year.”

Mobile chipmakers represent the biggest customers for foundries, but pockets of the business are cooling off to some degree. So, unless there is a steep upturn in the near term, the foundry market may quickly turn into a buyers’ market in 2013. Average selling prices for wafers could steadily drop, putting a squeeze on foundry margins.

Besides 28nm, foundries are simultaneously developing 20nm planar and 14nm-class finFETs. In doing so, foundries are moving toward the long-awaited “virtual IDM” model, where vendors and customers collaborate more closely under the same roof.

The shift towards the “virtual IDM” model is easier said than done, however. “The foundries will have some obstacles,” said Robert Bruck, vice president and general manager of the Technology Manufacturing Engineering Group at Intel. “Design, process technology, development and equipment costs are going up.”

As the costs and challenges mount, there are signs that the leading-edge foundry business is ripe for a shakeout. Currently, there are six companies that provide leading-edge foundry services in one form or another: GlobalFoundries, IBM, Intel, Samsung, TSMC and UMC.

28nm glut?
In total, the IC market is expected to increase 6% in 2013, compared to a drop of 1% in 2012, said Bill McClean, president of IC Insights. Capital spending is expected to fall 10% in 2013, but foundry CapEx will remain flat this year, he added.

For 28nm alone, the foundries had a total capacity of 200,000 wafer starts per month (wspm) by the end of 2012, according to Barclays Capital. In 2013, the foundries are expected to add an additional capacity of 75,000 to 100,000 wspm for 28nm, according to Mike Splinter, chairman and chief executive of Applied Materials.

And at 20nm, the foundries are expected to have a total capacity of 25,000 wspm in 2013, Splinter said in a recent conference call. Most of that capacity will be added in the second half of 2013, he said.

Splinter projects that the worldwide wafer fab equipment (WFE) market will be flat to minus 10% in 2013, up from minus 5% to minus 15% from his previous forecast. “We think the foundries will be down, but not as low as we expected,” he said.

CapEx race
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) is showing no signs of a slowdown. The world’s largest foundry vendor has increased its capital spending from $8.3 billion in 2012 to $9 billion or more in 2013.

For 28nm, TSMC is expanding its capacity threefold in 2013 over 2012, said Morris Chang, chairman and chief executive of TSMC. In 2012, the polysilicon version of 28nm represented 100% of TSMC’s output. TSMC is expanding its 28nm high-k/metal-gate technology, which will reach the crossover point in the third quarter of 2013, he said.

The company also sees strong demand for 20nm. Apple will have its upcoming 20nm A7 application processors made on a foundry basis by TSMC, according to Barclays Capital, which noted that Apple is switching foundry vendors from Samsung to TSMC.

Meanwhile, GlobalFoundries, the world’s second largest foundry vendor, has set its capital spending budget at $3.5 billion in 2013, said Ajit Manocha, chief executive of GlobalFoundries. In 2012, GlobalFoundries’ capital spending hit $3.2 billion, according to Barclays.

The spending will help GlobalFoundries’ efforts to become more of a “virtual IDM.” In January, GlobalFoundries announced plans to build a multi-billion dollar R&D facility at its Fab 8 campus in Saratoga County, N.Y. The company’s new Technology Development Center (TDC) will help accelerate its 10nm and 7nm process development.

The TDC will also house part of GlobalFoundries’ stacked-die packaging and advanced photomask efforts. As photomask complexities soar, “some customers want a turnkey solution,” Manocha said.

Within its new 300mm fab in New York, the company has begun ramping up 28nm and 20nm processes. In 2013, Fab 8 is expected to expand from 10,000 to 30,000 wafers a month. “That’s still on plan,” he said. “We are also expanding our fab production in Dresden and Singapore.”

In total, GlobalFoundries will offer five technology platforms: bulk planar, bulk finFET, super-steep retrograde well (SSRW), FD-SOI (minimum) and FD-SOI (maximum). Customer tapeouts for its 14nm-class finFETs are expected in 2013, with production slated for 2014.

The maximum version of FD-SOI is tuned for specific applications, said Subramani Kengeri, vice president of advanced technology architecture at GlobalFoundries. Meanwhile, the minimum version is a simple and an “out of the box” FD-SOI technology, Kengeri said.

The company will provide FD-SOI wafers on a foundry basis for STMicroelectronics and other customers. GlobalFoundries’ 28nm FD-SOI process will move into risk production in the fourth quarter of 2013, with production slated for the first quarter of 2014.

Meanwhile, amid the apparent loss of a major customer in Apple, Samsung has cut its logic capital spending from 8 trillion Korean won in 2012 to between 4 trillion and 4.5 trillion Korean won in 2013, according to Barclays. Apple accounts for roughly one-third of Samsung’s logic capacity.

Samsung’s main logic/foundry fab is called S1, which is in Korea. S1 is making 28nm devices and is capable of low-volume finFET production. “S1 has more than doubled its size over the last year,” said Ana Hunter, vice president of foundry services at Samsung Semiconductor.

In Austin, Texas, Samsung has two 300mm fabs, plus a copper metallization facility. One fab is a foundry/logic plant. The fab, dubbed S2, has been a dedicated foundry plant for Apple. The other fab in Austin was previously a NAND facility. Last year, Samsung converted that fab from NAND into a 28nm logic/foundry plant.

In 2012, the company put on the brakes on its new S3 fab, a 300mm plant in Korea. “S3 resumed construction at the end of January,” said Christian Gregor Dieseldorff, an analyst at SEMI. “Equipment may begin to move in by mid-year. I think this may be the earliest.”

The S3 fab, which is expected to ramp up in 2014, will manufacture 20nm planar devices and 14nm-class finFETs. With process design kits available today, Samsung is expected to sample finFETs in 2014. In addition, the company has deployed “training teams” to help customers with their finFET designs, Samsung’s Hunter said.

The complexity of new and advanced designs will require more handholding between the foundries and their customers. “The collaboration has to get deeper with customers,” she added.

In moving towards the virtual IDM model, the foundries face some challenges. “There are very large investments that are required,” Intel’s Bruck said. “How do you accelerate the yield learning? What about the IP issues? Another aspect in terms of the foundry model is the delay that we are seeing in terms of revenue on the leading-edge.”

All chipmakers, including Intel, face the same challenge: How to keep up with the soaring R&D costs associated with the new and emerging technologies? “R&D is weighing on every level on the supply chain in this industry,” he added.

Foundry companies are keeping a close eye on Intel. To date, Intel is only providing foundry services to a limited customer base, and shows no signs of expanding the offering to a broader audience. So far, the chip maker is providing its 22nm finFET technology on a foundry basis to flow processor supplier Netronome and two FPGA vendors, Achronix and Tabula. In addition, Intel recently announced capital spending of $13 billion in 2013, including $2 billion for 450mm development.

Meanwhile, Taiwan foundry vendor United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) continues to fall behind, as the company said it is having yield issues with its 28nm process. In addition, UMC recently said it will move directly from 28nm to 14nm finFETs, thereby skipping the 20nm node.

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