Apple’s chip manufacturer TSMC today broke ground on its first 5-nanometer fabrication facility in Taiwan, promising that 5-nanometer chips will be commercially available in 2020, with 3-nanometer chips planned for 2022. The tiny new processors will guarantee that future smartphones continue to shrink while offering superior performance and battery life to today’s models.
First shown in physical form by IBM and Samsung last June, the 5-nanometer chip process is capable of squeezing 30 billion transistors — digital on-off switches — into fingernail-sized chips, doubling or tripling the transistor counts of 10-nanometer chips. TSMC’s 5-nanometer process uses extreme ultraviolet lithography, requiring an expensive super-fine laser that has only recently become commercially viable.
Smaller, higher density transistors let chipmakers choose between faster performance, longer battery life, or a balance of speed and battery improvements. A 5-nanometer chip might be four times as power-efficient as a 10-nanometer chip while offering the same performance, or four times as fast with the same battery life. Vendors commonly choose something in the middle, such as twice the speed of a prior chip with half the battery drain.
Though many companies manufacture chips, Intel, Samsung, and TSMC are the industry’s three leaders, fabricating chips used by top consumer electronics brands. For instance, IBM relies upon Samsung, while Apple and Qualcomm alternate between TSMC and Samsung for their self-designed chips. Chipmakers earn business by delivering millions of trouble-free parts on schedule, but demanding customers require cutting-edge fabrication techniques that only leading manufacturers can afford. Unlike TSMC, Samsung stumbled on 7-nanometer manufacturing, the interim step between 10- and 5-nanometer chips, and lost some of Qualcomm’s business as a result.
TSMC’s new facility will have a three-phase ramp-up over three years, eventually producing over half a billion 5-nanometer chips per year in Tainan’s Southern Taiwan Science Park when 5G smartphones are in peak demand. The company is investing over $17 billion in the factory and $24 billion in 5-nanometer technology as a whole, with plans to fabricate 3-nanometer chips in the same location.