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TSMC is behind the global chipmakers’ refusal to switch to 450mm silicon wafers

TSMC, the largest contract chip manufacturer in the world, has been the main culprit in the death of chip assembly technology on 450 mm (18-inch) wafers, writes The Register. This was pointed out by former COO Chang Shang-Yi, who spoke about this in an interview with the Computer History Museum (CHM) in California.

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At present, the largest wafers used to produce chips of any size in the semiconductor industry are 300 mm or 12 inches in diameter. Manufacturers approached this diameter gradually, increasing the size of the wafers, since the larger they are, the more chips can be placed on them, and the lower the cost of production of one microcircuit.

About a decade ago, a focused effort was made to develop 450 mm wafer technology and bring it to the market on an industrial scale. As The Register reported in 2012, TSMC announced a five-year, $8 to $10 billion project to build a new 450mm wafer factory, and said at the time that Intel was already leaning towards 450mm technologies with plans to build factories in Arizona and Oregon.

According to Chang Shang-Yi, TSMC has indeed been moving towards 450mm wafers since it was a small company. But she had to abandon this idea when her management realized that this innovation would immediately raise the company to a new level, where she would no longer have to fight with small Chinese companies, but with real giants - Intel and Samsung.

At the time, Intel said that it believed the move from 300mm to 450mm silicon wafers would more than double the number of chips per wafer.

A group of companies including Intel, TSMC, Samsung, IBM, and GlobalFoundries even formed a partnership called the Global 450mm Consortium (G450C) to develop the manufacturing equipment needed to start producing 450mm wafers, but by 2017, enthusiasm for 450mm wafers faded away and all major companies still stick to 300mm wafers for high volume products. Chiang says in an interview that Intel was the main mover to move to 450mm wafers because it saw it as another way to gain a market advantage over smaller competitors.

"People say the move to bigger platters is performance related. That's not entirely true. It's more like a game. It's a game for the big guy to get an advantage over the little guy." - Chiang.

"Right now, if you want to move to 18", the first thing that's going to happen is all the hardware vendors, all their new hardware will be 18". who doesn't need 18" hardware is automatically out of the competition. They can't afford it either. So the big player is crowding out the small one. That's the number one reason to move to bigger platters."

Chiang recalls walking into the office of Morris Chang (founder and former CEO of TSMC) in 2013 and telling him that TSMC shouldn't be pushing 450mm wafer technology. The reason was that TSMC successfully competes with its many small rivals on 300mm wafers, but if it moves to 450mm, it will instead find itself up against Intel and Samsung, which at that time were much larger than TSMC. .

"In the past, our competitors were UMC, SMIC, and these guys are much smaller than us. We are promoting 450 mm, we are using this advantage. But now we have only two competitors - Intel and Samsung. They are both bigger than us. It will hurt us," Chiang said.

Chang began to understand that switching to 450 mm plates was now impossible. So he called at least 10 meetings to discuss it within the company, and in the end we decided that we shouldn't support it," Chiang explained.

But TSMC needed to find an excuse, some reason, for not continuing to develop 450mm wafers, so Chang decided that TSMC would announce that its priority would be to develop advanced technology over 450mm wafers."

According to Chian, the critical situation arose at a meeting at the 2013 SEMICON West semiconductor conference, where Intel, Samsung and TSMC were in the same room with ASML, a chip lithography equipment manufacturer, to discuss 450mm technology.

Bill Holt, head of the Intel Technology and Manufacturing Group, confirmed his company's support for 450mm and said that all parties present should invest in the development project.

"I'm the next speaker and I told him that cutting edge technology is our priority," Chiang said. "He figured it out. He was very upset and left." The next day, Intel made an announcement that their priority was to develop cutting-edge technology, and that was the end of the 450mm wafers," he said, adding, "Nobody has been talking about it since."

It looks like TSMC has put an end to Intel's grandiose plans to jointly transition to the production of chips on 450mm wafers.

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