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SMIC Overcomes Sanctions: Advances in 3nm Chip Fabrication Despite Equipment Restrictions

Chinese chip manufacturer Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) is forging ahead with advancements in chip fabrication technology, specifically in the development of 3nm fabrication processes, as reported by Nikkei. This progress comes despite challenges posed by US sanctions, which have restricted SMIC's access to cutting-edge chip production equipment. Notably, SMIC has successfully devised its second-generation 7nm-class process technology, demonstrating its capability to produce processors for smartphones. The company, currently ranked as the fifth-largest contract chipmaker globally, has shifted its focus to in-house research and development, targeting the exploration of 5nm and 3nm-class process technologies.

Heading the research and development team is SMIC's co-CEO, Liang Mong-Song, a distinguished semiconductor scientist with prior experience at industry giants TSMC and Samsung. Despite sanctions hindering SMIC's ability to acquire extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography tools from ASML, the chipmaker has adeptly relied on deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography for its 7nm-class nodes. SMIC's utilization of ASML Twinscan NXT:2000i lithography machines, capable of etching up to 38nm production resolutions, showcases its commitment to innovation within the constraints of sanctions.

While facing limitations in equipment accessibility, SMIC has navigated the challenges by employing alternative methods such as multi-patterning. This complex process, though capable of achieving ultra-small feature sizes, involves intricate steps that may impact cycle times, yields, and equipment durability. The cost implications are also significant. 

Nevertheless, SMIC's progress in developing a DUV-only 3nm-class fabrication process stands as a notable achievement, and industry observers await the real-world performance of chips produced through this process in upcoming products. The company's resilience in advancing chip technologies within the constraints of sanctions highlights its strategic and innovative approach to chip manufacturing.


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