Huawei Surprises With Advanced Chip Despite US Sanctions
Huawei defies US sanctions with its new Kirin 9000S chip, developed in collaboration with China's SMIC amid tech tensions.
In late 2020, Huawei, a leading mobile phone manufacturer, faced existential challenges due to severe sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. These sanctions severed ties with global semiconductor supply chains, blocking the production of Huawei-designed chips. In a strategic response, Huawei collaborated with Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a state-backed Chinese foundry. SMIC had developed a method to produce advanced chips with older equipment, albeit with higher costs and uncertain outcomes, offering a lifeline to Huawei.
Navigating Through Sanctions And Technical Hurdles
The partnership faced immediate challenges as SMIC was also added to the US sanctions list in December 2020, complicating technology acquisition and management. This move required that SMIC adapt to new manufacturing processes under stringent restrictions, likened to "measuring an elephant in the dark." Despite these constraints, in August 2023, Huawei launched the Mate 60 series phone, featuring the Kirin 9000S chip, previously codenamed Charlotte. The chip's performance, which is on a par with that of one- to two-year-old Qualcomm chips, marked a significant achievement under sanctions, leading to its successful market reception in China and puzzling US officials.
SMIC's Approach To Chip Fabrication
SMIC's venture into advanced chip production involved the use of deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography machines, less efficient than the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography equipment used by industry leaders like TSMC and Samsung. Budget constraints initially motivated this choice, but later, it became a necessity as the US and allies restricted the export of EUV equipment. The DUV process required more steps, leading to increased production costs and lower yields, posing a significant challenge for SMIC.
Collaborative Efforts And State Support
Huawei acted as a vital partner in SMIC's advanced chip production, playing a crucial role in refining production processes. The collaboration involved international expertise, with engineers from various countries contributing to enhance productivity. Despite the high production costs and technical challenges, the Chinese state provided substantial financial support, recognizing the strategic importance of this initiative.
Expanding Horizons: AI And Beyond
Following the successful launch of the Kirin 9000S, Huawei and SMIC have broadened their focus to include artificial intelligence (AI) chip production. This move aligns with China's aim to reduce dependency on foreign high-performance chips, with major Chinese internet companies exploring local alternatives. Despite challenges in manufacturing AI chips, Huawei has initiated production with SMIC, aiming to significantly increase output in the coming years.
The Future Of China's Semiconductor Ambitions
Huawei and SMIC's success in launching the Kirin 9000S amidst sanctions has reinforced China's commitment to its semiconductor industry. The government continues to invest heavily in developing a self-sufficient chip industry, crucial for China's high-performance computing and national security. This endeavor represents China's broader ambition to become a manufacturing superpower, independent of foreign technology. Huawei's aspirations extend beyond the Chinese market, as symbolized by the Kirin 9000S's original codename Charlotte, reflecting a desire to reestablish its global presence in the semiconductor industry.
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