In recent years, US government sanctions have effectively put a stranglehold on the Chinese semiconductor industry. While companies in the Middle Kingdom can continue to produce chips for normal applications, they are not allowed to introduce certain newer chip technologies. This makes producing more advanced products almost impossible. But the country is working on a way out: With so-called chiplet technology, China now wants to give itself the opportunity to circumvent export bans in order to build up a certain degree of independence in the IT industry – and at least keep pace with other countries, especially the USA .
In 2023, both the Chinese government and – not just local – venture capitalists have focused on promoting the domestic chiplet industry. University researchers are being incentivized to solve key problems associated with chip manufacturing – and some chiplet start-ups like Polar Bear Tech have already launched initial products.
Chiplets with a modular approach
Unlike traditional chips, where all components are integrated on a single piece of silicon, chiplets take a modular approach. Each one has a special function, one can contain the computing cores, another the memory controllers and another the I/O interfaces such as PCI Express. Prominent examples of this approach are AMD’s Ryzen processors and Intel’s Core Ultra aka Meteor Lake.
Several units make up a system. Because each chiplet is smaller and more specialized than a full chip, they are cheaper to produce and less prone to malfunction. At the same time, individual chiplets in a system can be replaced with newer, better versions to increase performance. Other functional components remain the same. Chiplet technology has already won awards for its potential to drive further performance growth in the era following the looming end of Moore’s Law. The US edition of the MIT Technology Review has chosen it as one of the ten groundbreaking technologies of 2024.
For companies like AMD and Intel, chiplets are just one of several ways in which the semiconductor industry can further increase the computing power of chips despite the physical limits. For Chinese companies, however, they are intended to reduce the time and cost of developing more powerful chips in their own country and supply important technology sectors such as AI.
A shortcut to more powerful chips
The US government has been using so-called blacklists for several years to slow down the development of the Chinese semiconductor industry. One of the sanctions, imposed in October 2022, banned the sale to China of certain high technologies needed for the most advanced chip manufacturing.
For years, the Chinese government has been looking for ways to overcome the resulting bottleneck. But breakthroughs in areas like chip lithography — the process that uses light to transfer a design pattern to the base silicon material — can take decades to come to fruition. Today, China still lags behind in chip manufacturing compared to companies in Taiwan, the Netherlands (including ASML) and other regions. “Although we have seen that China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC)]can produce 7-nanometer chips, we suspect that production will be expensive and chip yield [der sogenannte Yield, also wie viele Chips fehlerfrei sind] is low,” says McKnight-MacNeil.
SMIC uses older DUV (deep ultraviolet) lithography systems for its 7 nm process and exposes the structures multiple times. Other chip manufacturers such as TSMC, Samsung and Intel have already switched to lithography systems with extreme ultraviolet (EUV) exposure technology, which SMIC does not have.
But the chiplet manufacturing approach poses a challenge to another area of the semiconductor industry: chip packaging technologies, which connect the chiplets into a chip package so that they work together. “Developing advanced packaging technologies required to exploit a chiplet design is undoubtedly on China’s to-do list,” said Cameron McKnight-MacNeil, a process analyst at semiconductor research firm TechInsights. “China is known to already have some basic technologies for the use of chiplets.”
The technique used in this process is called advanced packaging. For China, this is – compared to the import sanctions of further developed chip generations – an easier undertaking than producing entire chips. Chinese companies are already responsible for 38 percent of global chip packaging. While companies in Taiwan, Singapore and the US are still mastering newer technologies, it is less difficult to catch up on this front.
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