Responding to the latest rumors that its 3nm process is experiencing difficulties and thus facing delays, TSMC has emphasised that everything stays on course, denying that its N3 technology was facing production challenges. According to a claim made by the media The Information, due to TSMC’s technical challenges, Apple’s A16 bionic chips intended for iPhone 14 wouldn’t be manufactured at TSMC’s 3nm node. Consequently, as claimed by the media, for the first time Apple’s A-series chips would be stuck on the same process node family for three consecutive years.
The company’s A14 chips were the first to adopt TSMC’s N5 technology, while the A15 chipsets continued to use N5P, an enhanced version of TSMC’s 5nm process. Lately, Digitimes also claimed that the A16 chips would use TSMC’s 4nm node, also part of the 5nm family, and further fuelled the speculations that TSMC’s 3nm node would be delayed.
According to C. C. Wei, TSMC’s CEO, the 3nm process was scheduled to enter risk production in 2021, with volume production expected in the second half of 2022. TSMC’s 3nm technology will be last process node using the FinFet transistor architecture, offering a 70% logic density gain and 15% speed gain compared to 5nm, with 30% less power consumption. However, compared to the 14 EUV layers used in N5, the N3 technology is estimated to use more EUV layers, adding to its soaring cost. Addressing the cost concern, TSMC is also planning for an enhanced version of N3 that will use fewer EUV layers.
To a certain extent, TSMC’s 4nm technology is also a response to the increasingly higher cost of extending Moore’s Law, and N4 will also see a reduction of EUV layers, according to C. C. Wei. At its 2021 Online Technology Symposium in June, TSMC revealed that its 4nm process would enter risk production in Q3 2021, earlier than expected. On October 26, TSMC also unveiled an enhanced version of N4. Known as N4P, the technology features a 6% performance boost over N4. A16 is rumoured to be using this specific version.
As early as 2020, various sources, including TrendForce, already predicted that Apple’s A16 chips would possibly opt for TSMC’s 4nm process. As for the N3 technology, Intel and Graphcore have been confirmed as its adopters, and recently the Chinese smartphone maker OPPO has also been reported as N3’s potential customer.