上网时间: 2013年04月05日? 作者:Junko Yoshida? 我来评论 【字号: ? ?小】


Exclusive: China chip CEO details SMIC's foundry plans

Junko Yoshida

SMIC CEO Tzu-Yin Chiu hopes to put to bed the industry’s image of the Chinese foundry as hip-deep in red ink and fighting TSMC in court.

SHANGHAI – Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), for the first time in a long time, has a good story to tell.

The company hopes to put to bed the industry’s collective memory of SMIC as a huge Chinese foundry hip-deep in red ink, pursued by its Taiwanese rival in litigation, and paralyzed by internal management turmoil.

In contrast, the new SMIC comes with record-high revenue—$1.7 billion for the full year of 2012—positive income of $15.9 million (the company’s highest in seven years), and a smiling, personable CEO, Tzu-Yin Chiu, who took the company’s helm in August, 2011.

In the first one-on-one interview given to the Western media since he became SMIC’s CEO, Chiu carefully chose his words as he laid out his company’s short, medium and long-term strategies Thursday (March 21). In an exclusive conversation with EE Times at SMIC headquarters here, he touched on everything from the company’s sub 40-nm strategy to his view on fully depleted silicon on insulator (FDSOI) technology. He also covered SMIC’s relationship with IBM and financing for its Beijing fab expansion.

The most telling sign of the new SMIC is found in Chiu’s focus on “utilization, differentiation and advanced technology”– with priority in that order, not the reverse.

SMIC's CEO Tzu-Yin Chiu

Instead of speaking with bravado of how he plans to compete with the world’s biggest foundry—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC)—the low-key CEO spoke more about execution. In Chiu’s mind, the pressing issue for SMIC is to demonstrate to the world that SMIC can “continue to grow and thrive in a foundry environment,” as he put it.

If the last several quarters are any indications, the new plan is going well. But the obvious question is whether the good news keeps coming. How long can SMIC sustain its current quarter-after-quarter growth?

As the chip industry knows, the foundry business is not for the faint-hearted. The semiconductor market regularly revolves in cycles of shortage and overcapacity, with sometimes dramatic fluctuations in end-market demands, while everyone sweats the future of next-node process technology.

Cautiously, Chiu’s interview rarely strayed from SMIC’s message. But he proudly cited a survey published by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology's China Software and Integrated Circuit Promotion Center (CSIP) in November 2012, which noted that 75 percent of Chinese fabless companies chose SMIC as their preferred foundry partner. That number in the same survey a year before was only 59 percent.

“Our customers are recognizing the quality of our service, and especially speed,” said Chiu.

Speed is critical for customers whose survival depends on product turn-around time. For that, “we need to offer them a reasonably complete IP portfolio and characterization,” he said. “And we must get it right the first time.” For some products, SMIC’s turn-around time these days is as short as four months. For other products, it’s six to seven months.

One SMIC advantage today is the big success of some emerging China fabless companies. As Spreadtrum’s CEO Leo Li noted and SMIC’s Chiu confirmed, Spreadtrum, for example, is one of the “the biggest” and “most important customers” of SMIC. But, once Spreadtrum, which currently gets its chips made at TSMC, SMIC and UMC, moves to a 28-nm node for the company’s SoCs in the fourth quarter of this year, Li said that Spreadtrum is going to TSMC. “But of course, SMIC is also moving to 28-nm. We’ll work with them, if not next year, then in 2015,” said Li.

Fab utilization

Although SMIC saw “a slight drop” its fab utilization ratio, Chiu said that he’s “happy about the loading situation.” According to company data, SMIC’s fourth-quarter utilization rate in 2012 was 91 percent, after reaching 95 percent in the second quarter.

Over the next few years, the most important for SMIC will be the company’s differentiation strategy. “We bring our mature technology to add additional capabilities,” said Chiu.

SMIC’s team reportedly identified “nine market segments,” according to Chiu, where the company thinks it can win through differentiation. He declined to share the entire list, citing competitive reasons. But it includes smart cards, CMOS image sensors and power management ICs.

One of the hottest areas Chiu sees is the Chinese government push for smart cards. This covers SIM cards, social security and health-care, transportation and bank cards. Potential volume aside, cards need to be designed differently–specific to each application, said Chiu. This allows SMIC to work closely with local card vendors and provide differentiation. SMIC’s specialty includes “low power dissipation” especially for smart cards in contactless applications, Chiu said.

Chiu also sees SMIC as a key CMOS image-sensor foundry. SMIC has identified a burgeoning demand for cameras in smartphones, feature phones, home security and surveillance.

SMIC reportedly scored a breakthrough in the development of backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS image-sensor technology in the last quarter. Chiu noted, during the most recent quarterly financial results call: “The first fab chip demonstrated good image quality. The complete BSI process technology is targeted to contribute revenue in 2014.”

BSI delivers higher resolution to mobile phone cameras and high performance video cameras. This, in turn, allows SMIC customers to address the higher-end market. The differences SMIC can offer in this application include “low leakage capability,” according to Chiu.

Sub 40-nm processes

Perhaps the toughest challenge facing SMIC--and most essential to the foundry’s long-term survival--is the issue of advanced technology.

To keep pace with rivals like TSMC and GlobalFoundries, SMIC must make substantial investments in advanced technology. Yet, the company needs to tread carefully, watching closely both customer demands and the competition’s next steps.

As for 28-nm node, SMIC’s Shanghai facility has been working on its R&D, while high-volume production will take place in SMIC’s Beijing fab. “We will start accepting customers’ tapeout by the end of 2013,” Chiu noted.

He noted that SMIC’s 28-nm offering will be both high-K, metal gate (HKMG) and poly/SiON. Similarly, SMIC’s 20-nm chips will be both planar and FinFET, Chiu said. “We can’t lose our customers” by not doing one or the other, he explained.

When asked about SMIC’s interest in FDSOI, Chiu said, “From a pure physics’ point of view, I think FDSOI has very high potential. I think it gives a competitive device structure.”

But he added, as with many things in life, “Perhaps, this is not the issue of technology but more a matter marketing. It all depends on how many customers will accept FDSOI, and whether FDSOI can build enough of a following,” he said. “Unless there is a clear indication from our customers that FDSOI is what they want,” SMIC is not likely to commit to it.

Chiu acknowledged that SMIC has licensed significant technologies from IBM. But as for the 28-nm HKMG development, Chiu noted, “This is not based on a licensing program with IBM. We are jointly developing it with IBM, using some of our own technology.”

Financing strategy

Beyond investments in advanced technology, foundries are constantly under pressure to keep up capital expenditures for capacity expansions.

SMIC was founded in 2000, with generous financial backing from the Chinese government. SMIC then pioneered a new business model under which the foundry talks municipalities into building a capital intensive fab while SMIC agrees to manage it.

The model has helped lower SMIC’s capital costs--most of the time but not always. Wuhan Xinxin Semiconductor Manufacturing, now called XMC, was orignially operated by SMIC but owned by a local government, in this case, Wuhan.

Now that the Wuhan foundry is called XMC, the new management team at XMC earlier this week declared that the Wuhan-based fab is “an independent foundry startup--not SMIC’s sister company.” The fab’s ownership is still in the hands of the city of Wuhan. SMIC never bought it back, and it’s now being run by Simon Yang, SMIC’s former COO who resigned the company after Chiu became SMIC’s CEO.

How has SMIC’s Beijing fab been financed?

SMIC, by going to the investment community for its Beijing fab, is raising funds internally. “SMIC needs to execute profitability and regain confidence from investors,” said Chiu.

SMIC's rising revenue by quarter

source: SMIC

SMIC is planning to make it a joint-venture fab, “by leveraging investment funds owned by the Beijing municipal government,” according to Chiu.

The investments for SMIC’s Beijing expansion, however, are still under discussion.

Any funding or help from the Chinese central government? “No, so far, we’ve only gotten to the local level,” said Chiu. But Chiu hastened to point out that China has been very friendly, and open to the global semiconductor industry. Companies such as Hynix, Samsung and Intel have been all benefited, building mega-fabs in China, he added.

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