Samsung Jockeys for a Lead in Chipmaking
Samsung surpassed Intel in its 2021 Q2 revenue. Now, the South Korean chipmaker is forging ahead with high semiconductor goals.
While industry leaders like TSMC and Intel have amassed plenty of cache over decades, other chip manufacturers have recently gained ground. That couldn’t be truer for Samsung.
The South Korean chipmaker bested Intel earlier this year—even leading the world in Q2 2021 revenue. What developments have prompted Samsung’s rise, and what does the company’s roadmap look like?
The Samsung Exynos processor. Image used courtesy of Samsung
A Brief History of Samsung's Semiconductor Wins
Samsung’s semiconductor division has been hard at work since 2010—making a splash with the industry’s first 32nm, high-k dielectric (HKMG) process. These chips offered an alternative to silicon-dioxide gates while proving that Samsung could produce electronic components from the ground up.
That said, we’ve seen a number of semiconductor designs emerge from Samsung’s laboratories:
- 2011: Samsung’s in-house Exynos processor
- 2013: The Exynos 5 Octa, the first mobile processor to use big.LITTLE architecture—pairing a larger performance-focused processor with a smaller, efficiency-focused sidekick
- 2015: The 14nm FinFET mobile processor—replacing older, planar structures with 3D layouts
- 2016: The industry’s first mass production of 10nm FinFET SoCs
- 2018: The extreme ultraviolet (EUV)-based 7nm LPP chip—which delivered improved performance, higher production yields, lower power consumption, and high efficiency
Samsung has an "Advanced Foundry Ecosystem" said to be equipped to create 7LPP chips with EUV. Image used courtesy of Samsung
Since then, Samsung has unveiled its specialized 5nm EUV process. The company now uses this node for its flagship mobile processors, which have been Exynos-based for a handful of years. However, 2019 did bring a major development: the disbanding of Samsung’s custom-SoC development team.
While the company once sought to design custom CPU cores, the company instead licensed CPU cores produced by Arm. Additionally, the company could also lean on its Qualcomm partnership—granting Samsung access to Snapdragon CPUs. Industry sources believed a joint R&D effort between Qualcomm and Samsung was pending. These days, Samsung's Exynos 2100 CPU powers its latest smartphones (in part) and leverages its longstanding Octa-core design.
Samsung Faced Setbacks Starting 2019
While Samsung has lofty goals, recent successes have been balanced by some notable setbacks. While the company’s semiconductor revenue peaked at $73.71 billion in 2018, Samsung plummeted hard in 2019. The company earned just $52.39 billion—a massive 29 percent dip following a decade of growth. Since then, why have Samsung’s earnings been underwhelming?
Samsung's Q2 revenue placed it ahead of Intel as the world’s largest chipmaker. Image (modified) used courtesy of Kim Hong-Ji and Reuters
Reduced production and competition share much of the blame. Samsung’s chief equipment supplier, ASML, was flooded with early orders from TSMC—who snapped up 70 percent of ASML’s available fabrication units. Additionally, Samsung’s semiconductor division has felt the impacts of its Texas plant closure. The company has lost a projected $265 to $353 million due to manufacturing disruptions.
The company had been losing contracts, and executives feared a mass exodus from customers. If that weren’t enough, TSMC also beat Samsung to market with its 5nm process by several months.
The Chipmaker Plans a Comeback
Samsung has now expressed interest in becoming a global leader in cutting-edge chip production. The company’s semiconductor roadmap is a testament to this mission, as it hopes to continually shrink its process nodes. While the 5nm process currently leads the way, Samsung soon aims to introduce 4nm Low Power Plus (LPP) chips. This will be Samsung’s send-off for FinFET technology—as other architectures will be needed to decrease node sizes further.
That’s where gate-all-around (GAA) technology comes into play. Samsung’s newest packaging approach will leverage Multi-Bridge-Channel FET (MBCFET), which is designed with enhanced gate control and uses nano sheeting. The chipmaker’s 3nm process will prominently feature this technology, which it hopes will be a breakthrough. The race is on to adopt this 3nm technology before TSMC; both manufacturers target a 2022 launch.
Design flexibility of a FinFET vs. a MBCFET. Image used courtesy of Samsung
By 2025, Samsung hopes that GAA-based 2nm chips will help it finally supplant TSMC. The Korean fabricator has already topped Intel to become the 2021 semiconductor revenue leader. However, it’s yet to catch up on volume. TSMC has partnered with Apple, AMD, and others. Meanwhile, Intel claimed 78.3 percent of the x86 CPU market share in 2020.
An unexpected partnership is also brewing come 2023. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger shared that his company would be partnering with TSMC to produce CPUs for data center customers and others. This business will help bolster Samsung’s main rivals by some degree.
Samsung Sets Its Sights on Big-name Customers and Tech Expansion
Samsung is betting big on the appeal of its upcoming technologies. The company plans to invest over $37 billion this year, hoping to spark innovation and attract new business. Winning new customers like NVIDIA and Tesla is the goal. There’s hope that its newer, more-advanced processes—should they arrive before TSMC’s equivalents—could even appeal to Apple, Qualcomm, and Google. Samsung has had a relationship with Apple in the past.
Samsung even plans to expand into different technical areas. The company is quite optimistic about its high-performance computing (HPC) solutions, which will power data centers. As machine learning and AI continue to boom, its 7nm LPP chips may be popular components. There are even plans for connected devices. Samsung believes that specialized 10nm and 8nm SoC processes can effectively power those electronics.
There’s also good news on the production side. Samsung’s once-closed Texas factory is recovering, and chip production is approaching normal levels.