Samsung 'closing the gap' with TSMC on 3nm, 4nm

The race to 2nm is getting crowded as Intel, Japan's Rapidus enter the fray

Samsung Electronics has reportedly caught up with rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) in advanced processor design, achieving comparable yields for both 4nm and 3nm nodes.

A Hi Investment and Securities report, obtained by Korean local media, puts Samsung's 4nm yields – the ratio of good chips to bad on a wafer – at about 80 percent. That's roughly on par with what industry watchers believe TSMC has been able to achieve with its own N4 process.

More impressively, the report indicates that Samsung has been able to achieve 60 percent yields on its 3nm node – which only entered production last year.

This would mean Samsung has managed to achieve yields better than that of TSMC. Back in April, Analysts estimated TSMC's 3nm yields to be roughly 55 percent.

While reports of foundry yields are often speculative – to say the least – if Samsung has managed to catch up and even exceed TSMC in this regard the Korean chaebol should be well positioned to win back key customers. This will be particularly crucial as demand for leading-edge process nodes used to produce GPUs and other AI accelerators ramps up.

Samsung has lost several key customers to TSMC over the past year. For instance, Nvidia moved production of its consumer GPUs from Samsung's 8nm process in the Ampere generation – not to be confused with Arm's Ampere platform – to TSMC's 4nm for its Ada Lovelace parts. Qualcomm has also opted to use TSMC process technology, after it reportedly got poor yields on Samsung's 4nm node.

While low yields are not unusual early in a process node's rollout, and typically improve as the node matures, it's worth pointing out that Samsung is using a relatively new transistor tech for its 3nm process. No doubt, that complicates things.

Samsung is among the first to embrace gate-all-around transistors – sometimes called GaaFET or ribbonFET – in its 3nm process to boost transistor density by vertically stacking transistor gates within a single channel. One of the first manufacturers to show off the tech was IBM with its 2nm process node demoed back in 2021. By comparison, TSMC has opted to stick with substantially more mature FinFET transistors for its 3nm process node and will only embrace the latest tech with the launch of its 2nm process. In theory this should reduce the complexity of TSMC's designs.

Samsung's rapid improvement is said to be down to the slump in semiconductor demand over the past year, which allowed for additional testing and process refinement time. Samsung bore the brunt of these losses due to its heavy investments in memory manufacturing, but these now appear to be paying dividends.

Foundry operators prepare for 2nm rollout

While TSMC and Samsung work to bolster yields of their 3nm nodes, the foundry field is expected to be quite a bit more combative by the time the 2nm tech starts to trickle out into the market. Two nanometer parts from both TSMC and Samsung are expected to enter production in 2025 – beginning with chips for mobile devices.

However, as the industry watchers at TrendForce pointed out in a recent blog post, the foundry giants will face competition from Japan's Rapidus, which claims it will begin trialing 2nm parts in 2025 with full production ramping in 2027.

For those that aren't familiar, Rapidus is a relatively new entrant to the foundry space. The Japanese state-backed foundry upstart has garnered considerable funding since revealing last December it would begin producing 2nm parts based on IBM's process tech in 2025 as part of the nation's plans to get back in the advanced chip game.

However, those timelines assume that a recent lawsuit – filed by GlobalFoundries against IBM over the sale of its 2nm process tech – doesn't derail the project.

Curiously missing from TrendForce's roundup is Intel, which is also named in the IBM lawsuit, and plans to bring its 20a process node – the equivalent of 2nm – to market in 2024. Intel has been looking to compete with TSMC since CEO Pat Gelsinger announced the formation of Intel Foundry Services(IFS), which would handle contract manufacturing in 2021, kicking off tens of billions in foundry investments.

Whether Intel will be able to ramp production of its own chips before TSMC and Samsung can bring their equivalent kit to market will be critical to the Silicon Valley giant's plans for future growth. ®

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