Huawei's 5G phones and the cost to China's biggest chipmaker

Sanctions have denied SMIC the most advanced chipmaking tools, and its workaround may be responsible for a recent sharp drop in profitability.

Iain Morris, International Editor

May 23, 2024

4 Min Read
Flagship Huawei store at Shanghai Taikoo Li Qiantan
(Source: Huawei)

The anti-China crowd in America was gobsmacked and angry when teardowns of Huawei's latest smartphones revealed components that US sanctions were thought to have withheld from the Chinese vendor. The Kirin processor, developed by Huawei-owned HiSilicon, was based on a 7-nanometer design. Of the world's big Asian foundries, only Taiwan's TSMC and South Korea's Samsung had the ability to manufacture it, assumed the authors of sanctions. Because both those foundries rely on US technology, they cannot serve Huawei without breaking the rules.

Cut off from TSMC and Samsung, Huawei was instead left with the prosaically named Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a Chinese foundry that has also been clobbered by export rules. Today's most advanced chipmaking equipment includes machines for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, used to imprint the mazy patterns of an electronic circuit on a silicon wafer. But ASML, a Dutch company, is currently the world's only manufacturer of EUV equipment. And the Dutch government has long prevented ASML from selling that equipment to SMIC.

Without it, SMIC would not be able to produce 7-nanometer or even smaller, more advanced designs, US rule makers seemed to think. SMIC has acknowledged its victim status, too. In its last annual report, published in April, it wrote that "for items uniquely required for production at 10 nanometers and below (including extreme ultraviolet technology), the license review policy of a presumption of denial will be imposed by the relevant US government departments and agencies."

The sophistication of EUV relates mainly to a wavelength measuring just 13.5 nanometers, considerably less than the 193 nanometers of deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography, an older technology previously shipped to China in large volumes. The difference, an ASML spokesperson once told Light Reading, is like that between a thick marker and a fine ballpoint.

This analogy suggested that using DUV machines to produce complex 7-nanometer chips would be like drawing an intricate portrait with a fat pen. But SMIC is believed to have done it via a technique called multiple patterning. As the name implies, this essentially means repeating the lithographic process with DUV equipment to achieve the desired results. Double- and quadruple-patterning are among the specific options available.

Pricey chips

The main uncertainty is at what cost, and some evidence of multiple patterning's economic disadvantages may have emerged in SMIC's results. In the latest, published a few days ago, SMIC reported a 20% year-over-year increase in first-quarter sales, to about $1.75 billion, and yet profits tumbled 73%, to $63.5 million. Executives at the company laid most of the blame on high depreciation charges, incurred as new equipment was powered up for the first time.

But an examination of SMIC's results also reveals a 31% rise in cost of sales, to more than $1.5 billion. SMIC's gross margin accordingly sank from about 21% a year ago to less than 14%. Richard Windsor, an analyst with Radio Free Mobile, thinks the workaround of using DUV and multiple patterning to make those 7-nanometer chips has proven expensive.

Experts say the big drawback of multiple patterning is that it tends to result in lower "yields," a percentage measure of the functional chips derived from a silicon wafer. Intel is thought to have experimented with it for 10-nanometer production before it eventually gave up and bought EUV machines instead. TSMC had a similar experience, according to Windsor. In a blog, he writes that yields were so low as to be uneconomical.

"However, we are expected to believe that SMIC has got this to work well enough so that its yields are economic and that it is making money," he said. "I think that the reverse is true and that a part of the weakness we have seen in gross margins over the last several quarters is due to increasing revenues coming from chips made using multi-patterning techniques."

There was certainly no acknowledgement of this in SMIC's first-quarter report or commentary prepared by executives for their earnings call with analysts. But Windsor is not the only expert questioning those cost-of-sales numbers. Earl Lum, the founder of EJL Wireless Research, who previously worked in the chip industry, agrees that a 31% increase may be a sign of "a potential yield hit."

US hawks will celebrate anything that points to problems for Chinese technology companies, especially those involved in chips. If Windsor and others are right, then growing shipments of Huawei's newest phones may chew further into SMIC's profits and potentially hurt its competitiveness. The alternative could be higher prices for end users, making rivals based outside China seem a much better bet.

SMIC's options, though, are limited. Japan's Canon and Nikon are the only other big makers of lithography machines. Regardless of Japan's appetite for upholding sanctions against China, neither company has an EUV range of products. Developing that expertise took many years, cost billions and necessitated partnerships with chip companies and component makers worldwide, ASML insists. China is reportedly aiming for self-sufficiency in EUV, among other things, and it is not shy of long-term commitments. But a homegrown Chinese rival could be a long time in the making.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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