TSMC is the largest contract chip manufacturer in the world. Companies like Apple, Huawei, Qualcomm, and others send their designs to the Taiwan based foundry where they are manufactured. Last month, the buzz around the water cooler was that Huawei had started moving some of its business away from TSMC and turned it over to SMIC instead. The latter is the largest foundry in China and Huawei might have decided that it felt more secure sending business its way. Currently, Huawei is TSMC's second-largest customer after Apple, but with President Donald Trump sniffing around TSMC, there is no telling what he might do in order to inflict more pain on the company.
The biggest downside to using SMIC instead of TSMC is that the former is not as technologically advanced as the latter. TSMC is producing cutting-edge 5nm chips this year that contain 171.3 million transistors per square mm. The 5nm chips will power Huawei's most high-powered phone series this year, the Mate 40 line. SMIC can roll nothing more sophisticated than chips made using the 14nm process node off of its assembly line. Those components can pack approximately 43 million transistors into a square mm making them less powerful and energy-efficient than TSMC's 5nm chips.
A leaked TSMC 5nm roadmap shows that this year TSMC will churn out a 5nm chipset called the Kirin 1000 followed next year by the 5nm Kirin 1100. But Huawei has moved production of its Kirin 710 SoC, made for mid-range handsets, to SMIC from TSMC. The Kirin 710 was produced by TSMC using its 12MP process node and that will be replaced by the Kirin 710A made by SMIC using its 14nm FinFET process node. Chinese companies are believed to own 100% of the IP rights to the Kirin 710A.Because SMIC is several process nodes behind TSMC, Huawei still needs to rely on the Taiwan-based firm for the high-end chips required to produce flagship models.
In order to celebrate the mass production of SMIC's first 14nm FinFET chipset, all SMIC employees in Shanghai received an Honor Play 4T handset last week with the words "Powered by SMIC FinFET" printed on the back. Before the production of the Kirin 710A by SMIC, Huawei was using the Kirin 710F chipset. This had the same specs as the Kirin 710 with one change; using the "Flip Chip" manufacturing system, the component is able to carry more transistors inside without having to increase the size of the chip.