In what is essentially the corporate version of a fist-bump of solidarity, ARM and TSMC have agreed to
join forces to develop a 7nm chip. It won’t be the world’s first – IBM created a 7nm chip in the summer
of last year – but ARM and TSMC are hoping to be the first to get a chip that size to the commercial
Intel and IBM had been in a race to develop the 7nm for some time. It was a race that IBM won, but the
prohibitively expensive cost of manufacturing meant that their model of the component had no hope of
seeing widespread use until 2018 or even 2019. Intel is still in the race too, but it looks like their 7nm
chips may not even see the market until 2020. It’s ARM and TSMC’s goal to beat both companies to the
punch, but the match-up with IBM will be a challenge.
This joint effort is part of an ongoing comradery between the two organizations, which have been
working in concert to develop 16nm and 10nm chips. We’re expecting their 10nm chips to drop
sometime around Q1 2017, a few months ahead of Intel’s 10nm chips. If Intel maintains the stunted pace
they’ve been going at, it’s possible that IBM and ARM and TSMC may outstrip the long-time industry
leader in a meaningful sense for the first time.
When IBM first developed the 7nm chip, it credited the breakthrough to the use of extreme ultraviolet
lithography, a technology that uses a wavelength of just 13.5nm. Interestingly, TMSC doesn’t appear to
be using this capability for developing their model of a 7nm chip, perhaps because EUV lithography is
currently a major hurdle for any kind of mass production.