China is aiming to become the world’s largest semiconductor equipment maker as early as in 2020, outstripping Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Chinese foundries such as Tsinghua Unigroup are making huge investments in related research and equipment under Beijing’s imperative for self-reliance.

The nation is expected to boost its equipment investments next year by about 21% year-on-year to the tune of US$14 billion, while Taiwan and South Korea’s corresponding figures will be $11.64 billion and $10.47 billion, according to electronics industry association SEMI. China’s surge is against a 7% annual increase industry-wide next year.

Yet the estimates by the trade body also contain a caveat, as it remains to be seen if the hefty investments shelled out by Chinese chipmakers will eventually translate into meaningful output and if their business models can be sustainable.

It was reported that Tsinghua Unigroup, a Beijing-based tech conglomerate with a niche in chipmaking and large scale integrated circuits, aims to pool more than one billion yuan on research into NAND flash memory chip capacity technology with a denser layout and greater storage capacity per chip, as well as cutting-edge dynamic random-access memory technology.

The company, ultimately owned by China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, announced at the end of June that it would create a dedicated DRAM business group for indigenous research and development, as reportedly no Taiwanese, US or South Korean DRAM companies would license their proprietary technology in a bid to lock the firm out of the lucrative market segment, but the new department would be headed by the former chairman of Taiwan’s biggest DRAM chipmaker.

China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp will also double down on 14-nanometer technology, a crucial step for China to short-circuit R&D to come to the fore of the industry, after the nation has already become the largest manufacturer of less advanced 28-nm chips.

But amid the glut of lower-end products, the Shanghai-based chipmaker is nowhere near its arch-rivals in terms of technology, while Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co – an industrial behemoth and core suppliers for Apple, Samsung and Google – is going to splurge as much as US$10 billion starting from 2020 to fund the expanded production of 5-7-nm chipsets, the ultra-fast yet minuscule central processing units that power up the performance of the latest gadgets like the iPhone 11 Pro and iPad Pro.

Apple’s latest A13 bionic chip that powers its iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro is made by TSMC. Photo: Apple

TSMC’s 7-nanometer process technology has entered its second year of mass production and its 5-nanometer technology is set to hit the market next year. The company is also pouring resources for the boundary-pushing 2-3-nm chip designs at its state-of-the-art fab in Hsinchu, dubbed Taiwan’s Silicon Valley.

“To TSMC, Moore’s Law is alive and well, and should continue to drive industry growth,” said TSMC Chairman Mark Liu, referring to former Intel Corp CEO Golden Moore’s observation that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years, while the cost per transistor would halve in the same time.

Liu told an industrial conference in Taipei on Wednesday that he was confident the industry would continue to grow in 2020, but prodded the Taiwanese government to encourage university research in the face of formidable competition, especially when Chinese institutions are in a race to spend more on R&D and Chinese firms are dangling bigger remuneration packages has led to an emerging talent drain from the island.