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As China’s leading foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), released its third quarter results, it was also revealed that its Taiwanese vice-chairman and executive director, Shang-Yi Chiang, had resigned. A former Chief Operating Officer at TSMC, Chiang was the latest senior Taiwanese executive to leave the board at SMIC. Mong-Song Liang, another TSMC veteran who had been serving as SMIC’s executive director and co-CEO, also announced his departure from the board on the same day, along with fellow Taiwanese Guang-Lei Yang, SMIC’s former non-executive director. After their resignations, SMIC’s board is now completely staffed by Chinese personnels. Liang nevertheless remains as SMIC’s co-CEO. 

A decisive player behind TSMC’s success

Having served as TSMC’s R&D chief and then its COO between 1997 and 2013, Chiang supervised TSMC’s progress from 0.25µm all the way to 16nm. Chiang especially played a crucial role in TSMC’s development of 0.13µm SoC low-k copper technology in the early 2000s. Under Chiang’s leadership, TSMC declined IBM’s invitation to jointly develop the copper process, unlike other peers such as United Microelectronics (UMC), and insisted to independently build its own R&D capabilities in the field. TSMC ended up successfully commercializing the 0.13µm copper technology ahead of IBM and its allies, gaining a decisive edge against its major rivals. 

Furthermore, Chiang also initiated TSMC’s research into advanced packaging, laying the foundation to its current progress in the field. Convinced that it would lead the semiconductor industry beyond Moore’s law, Chiang has long entertained a keen interest in chiplet-based advanced packaging, and has made public his intention to develop advanced packaging, alongside advanced nodes, at SMIC. It has been widely speculated that his neglected ambition to develop advanced packaging at SMIC partly contributed to his eventual resignation. 

A sharp drop in R&D expenditure 

Indeed, following the U.S. sanctions and the failure to obtain EUV lithography machines from ASML, SMIC faces tremendous difficulties to move below 14nm, and its year-over-year R&D expenditure uncharacteristically dropped 9.5% between Q2 2020 and Q2 2021, making SMIC the only foundry with decreased R&D expenditure this year.

It only showed improvements by Q3 2021, when SMIC’s Q3 2021 report showed a quarter-on-quarter R&D expenditure increase of 17% and a year-over-year increase of 5.6%. Earlier in June 2021, SMIC hinted a shift in strategy when its R&D VP remarked that China’s semiconductor industry should focus on mature nodes that it could independently manufacture without foreign equipment, calling it “unrealistic” to pursue advanced nodes without strengthening the foundation.

Ray Yang, the research director at the Industrial Economics and Knowledge Center of Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), however doubted that SMIC had dropped the development of advanced packaging, noting that Liu Ming, a prominent Chinese academic who has been a key advocate of advanced packaging, is still SMIC’s independent non-executive director.

 

Reference: TechNews, UDN