Rapidus ramps as construction begins on 2nm wafer fab
Japanese foundry startup also shipping engineers off to US to study IBM chip tech
Japan's Rapidus broke ground on its IIM-1 plant in Hokkaido on Friday, kicking off a flurry of hiring as the foundry upstart races to bring its 2nm wafer fab online by 2025.
During the ceremony, the company revealed they have already hired more than 200 people to bring the facility online on schedule, according to a Bloomberg report.
The government-backed foundry got its start a little over a year ago in a bid to compete with TSMC, Samsung Electronics, and Intel. It aims to roll out with mass-produced chips based on 2nm process technology by 2027, with pilot production slated for early 2025.
"We will complete the plant at an unprecedented speed, as the company name Rapidus implies," CEO Atsuyoshi Koike said in a statement.
Competing with TSMC and Samsung won't be easy. Both have fabs that are already producing chips based on their respective 3nm process nodes and are expected to bring 2nm process tech to market beginning in 2025.
Rapidus has reportedly received 370 billion yen ($2.5 billion) in government subsidies, and has solicited the help of IBM to produce chips on its 2nm gate-all-around transistor tech, which it demoed in early 2021.
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As work begins at the IIM-1 site this month, Rapidus says it'll be sending researchers to the Albany Nanotech Complex in New York, where Big Blue has a major operation, to prepare the process tech for mass production. Additionally, they will be working to deploy extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines, which one can assume will be provided by ASML. EUV equipment is essential for the production of advanced process nodes below 7nm.
Whether Rapidus can find the skilled workers it needs to stay on schedule remains to be seen. A shortage of skilled workers necessary to install and operate chipmaking equipment has already forced delays at TSMC's Arizona fab sites.
In July, TSMC CEO, Mark Liu, said the company couldn't find enough workers to install sensitive chip making equipment and that production of 4nm chips at the plant would be delayed until sometime in 2024 because of this. As a stopgap, the company plans to send technicians from Taiwan to assist and train local hires to prevent further delays to the project.
Intel has also stepped up training and recruitment efforts as it expands its foundry footprint in anticipation of competing with TSMC, Samsung, and others on leading-edge chip production. In July the x86 giant told The Register that the semiconductor industry could face a shortage of 70,000 to 90,000 workers over the next few years, and that it's working with universities, community colleges, and the National Science Foundation to establish a talent pipeline to attract fresh staff.
Even if Rapidus manages to avoid these same hiring pitfalls, the company could run into trouble with the process tech it has licensed from IBM. In April, GlobalFoundries sued IBM, accusing the company of licensing its intellectual property to Intel and Rapidus when it had no right to do so. The lawsuit, which is still in the pre-trial phase, seeks an injunction that may derail the foundry operators' roadmaps. ®