Huawei bid to move chip production in-house so it can survive US sanctions will start with a 45nm process – report

Huawei is reportedly aiming to move chip fabrication in-house for its battered telecoms infrastructure business in a move that will allow it to continue trading without falling afoul of ongoing US sanctions.

The embattled Chinese biz is said to be partnering with Shanghai IC R&D Center – a government-backed nonprofit founded in 2002 to improve collaboration between academia and business in semiconductor research.

According to the Financial Times, Huawei plans to start experimenting with chips made with a 45nm process. Somewhat antiquated, this process was first used in production by Intel in 2007, with AMD catching up the following year.

Huawei wants to start producing 28nm chips by the end of 2020, the FT claimed. Despite being far from the cutting edge (the first chips produced using this process entered the supply chain in 2011), these would be more than adequate for embedded systems like smart TVs, as well as IoT devices.

This would precede a move to a 22nm process by the end of 2022.

Chips manufactured with a 22nm process would be far from adequate for Huawei’s smartphone and mobile business. For historical context, way back in 2014, TSMC used a smaller 20nm node with chips intended for its mobility clients. Things have moved on since then. The latest flagship from Huawei, the Mate 40, came with its Kirin 9000 platform, which uses a 5nm process. Separately, the impossibly diminutive 3nm process is lurking faintly on the horizon, with a rollout expected in the next couple of years.

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro would be the best Android flagship on the market – were it not for the US-China trade war


But it’s plausible they’ll be fine for less demanding base stations and networking gear, where power efficiency is less of a pressing concern, and chips are relatively simpler, with no need for components intended for consumer use, like an image-signal processor (ISP) for photography.

On the smartphone front, it’s believed that Huawei will switch production to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a Mainland China fab. SMIC’s most advanced process uses a 14nm node, which is far below that offered by other fabs, including Samsung and TSMC, but is still serviceable for low-end, non-flagship phones.

Since the imposition of US sanctions against Huawei, the company has diligently stockpiled components in anticipation of a potential supply-chain squeeze. But those stockpiles will eventually be exhausted, and it’s important for Huawei to come up with contingencies.

That decision has since been vindicated by TSMC’s suspension of business with Huawei in September, as well as the justification provided for the UK’s decision to rip and replace existing Huawei 5G RAN equipment.

In his speech to the House of Commons in July, Oliver Dowden, UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, relayed warnings from the country’s National Cyber Security Center that unpredictability around Huawei’s supply chain amplified concerns.

“Given the uncertainty this creates around Huawei’s supply chain, the UK can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment affected by the change in the US foreign direct product rules,” he said.

The Register has asked Huawei and Shanghai IC R&D Center to comment. ®

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