IBM and Rapidus Team Up to Advance Semiconductor Ecosystem in Japan

December 22, 2022 by Aaron Carman

In a bid to strengthen its global semiconductor influence, Japan’s Rapidus has partnered with IBM to mass produce a 2 nm process for advanced logic.

Hoping to strengthen Japan’s semiconductor industry, IBM announced a partnership with Rapidus, a Japanese chip research and development company with sights set on a 2 nm process. This announcement marks a major shift for Japanese semiconductor manufacturing, which currently ranks as the fourth largest global market for semiconductor manufacturing equipment.  


Rapidus President Atsuyoshi Koike and Chairman Tetsuro Higashi

Rapidus President Atsuyoshi Koike (left) and Chairman Tetsuro Higashi (right) held a news conference following the announced partnership. Image used courtesy of Asia Times


IBM is not the only organization dedicating resources to Rapidus; big names such as Toyota and Sony also support the venture in developing a new, smaller process. In addition, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has allocated $510 million to Rapidus.


The Race to 2nm

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip will double about every two years. While this trend has held true for years, it cannot continue indefinitely. To support more transistors on comparable die sizes, semiconductor manufacturers have shrunk the physical size of transistors over the years.


IBM’s 2nm node process

IBM’s 2nm node process has reported significant improvements over the current nodes. Image used courtesy of IBM


Chips on 7nm and 5nm processes are standard today. While smaller feature sizes exist, manufacturers don't have the production capacity in place to scale such small nodes. Last year IBM revealed its 2nm chip technology, projecting 45% performance gains with a 75% reduction in overall energy consumption.


A Reentry to the Chipmaking Game

In the 1990s, Japanese-made semiconductors had the global semiconductor market cornered. Through the years, however, Japanese companies have fallen behind players like Intel in the memory chip sector and Samsung in the DRAM sector. While Japan still has a foothold in the semiconductor market in general, it has lost the edge in the logic chip space to the likes of TSMC, Samsung, and Intel.


Japan’s semiconductor sales have lagged behind those of other countries

In recent years, Japan’s semiconductor sales have lagged behind those of other countries as the global chip market has increased its sales. Image used courtesy of Nikkei Asia


In an effort to skip right down to 2 nm, Rapidus and IBM have partnered to develop IBM’s 2 nm node for mass production in Rapidus' new Japanese fabrication facility. This goal, if successful, would be a remarkable feat for Japan’s semiconductor industry, considering that the country’s current state-of-the-art node is 40 nm. With aid from researchers at IBM and the Albany NanoTech Complex, however, it is certainly feasible that the team can accomplish their goal of a 2 nm fab.


The Competition is Fierce

Rapidus' facility is expected to begin production in 2027. Despite the project's powerful backing from IBM, there is still uncertainty ahead for the global semiconductor market. TSMC, for example, will reportedly complete construction on its 2 nm fab and begin production in 2025, giving it a two-year head start on Rapidus.


IBM and Rapidus officials

IBM and Rapidus officials hope to develop IBM's 2 nm process for the next generation of high-performance and high-efficiency chips. Image used courtesy of Nikkei Asia


Regardless of the production timeline, Rapidus still has distinct advantages on its side. Cutting-edge technology such as extreme ultra-violet lithography provides Rapidus a leg up on its competition, considering the technology is denied to China. In addition, the partnership with IBM gives Rapidus access to unique R&D resources.

Rapidus President Atsuyoshi Koike has emphasized the importance of looking outward for breakthrough ideas, suggesting a global talent search following its partnership with IBM. Regardless of the road ahead, the market is primed to continue toward smaller and denser transistors to improve the efficiencies and performance of next-generation devices.