TSMC has introduced a brand-new manufacturing technology roughly every two years over the past decade. Yet as the complexity of developing new fabrication processes is compounding, it is getting increasingly difficult to maintain such a cadence. The company has previously acknowledged that it will start producing chips using its N3 (3 nm) node about four months later than the industry is used to (i.e., Q2), and in a recent conference call with analysts, TSMC revealed additional details about its latest process technology roadmap, focusing on their N3, N3E, and N2 (2 nm) technologies.

N3 in 2023

TSMC's N3 technology will provide full node scaling compared to N5, so its adopters will get all performance (10% - 15%), power (-25% ~ -30%), and area (1.7x higher for logic) enhancements that they come to expect from a new node in this day and age. But these advantages will come at a cost. The fabrication process will rely extensively on extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, and while the exact number of EUV layers is unknown, it will be a greater number of layers than the 14 used in N5. The extreme complexity of the technology will further add to the number of process steps – bringing it toto well over 1000 – which will further increase cycle times. 

As a result, while mass production of the first chips using TSMC's N3 node will begin in the second half of 2022, the company will only be shipping them to an undisclosed client for revenue in the first quarter of 2023. Many observers, however, expected these chips to ship in late 2022.

"N3 risk production is scheduled in 2021, and production will start in second half of 2022," said C.C. Wei, CEO of TSMC. "So second half of 2022 will be our mass production, but you can expect that revenue will be seen in first quarter of 2023 because it takes long — it takes cycle time to have all those wafer out."

N3E in 2024

Traditionally, TSMC offers performance-enhanced and application-specific process technologies based on its leading-edge nodes several quarters after their introduction. With N3, the company will be changing their tactics somewhat, and will introduce a node called N3E, which can be considered as an enhanced version of N3. 

This process node will introduce an improved process window with performance, power, and yield enhancements. It is unclear whether N3 meets TSMC's expectations for PPA and yield, but the very fact that the foundry is talking about improving yields indicates that there is a way to improve it beyond traditional yield boosting methods. 

"We also introduced N3E as an extension of our N3 family," said Wei. "N3E will feature improved manufacturing process window with better performance, power and yield. Volume production of N3E is scheduled for one year after N3."

TSMC has not commented on whether N3E will be compatible with N3's design rules, design infrastructure, and IPs. Meanwhile, since N3E will serve customers a year after N3 (i.e., in 2024), there will be quite some time for chip designers to prepare for the new node.

N2 in 2025

TSMC's N2 fabrication process has largely been a mystery so far. The company has confirmed that it was considering gate-all-around field-effect transistors (GAAFETs) for this node, but has never said that the decision was final. Furthermore, it has never previously disclosed a schedule for N2. 

But as N2 gets closer, TSMC is slowly locking down some additional details. Particularly, the company is now formally confirming that the N2 node is scheduled for 2025. Though they are not elaborating on whether this means HVM in 2025, or shipments in 2025.

"I can share with you that in our 2-nm technology, the density and performance, will be the most competitive in 2025," said Wei.

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  • shabby - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    Apple usually ships iPhones in 4th quarter, not first. But they usually get first dibs so who knows.
  • Teckk - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    That was not a very serious comment but considering that Apple starts selling iPhones in September, having them shipping & available by the end of March would be good I guess. Also, they have a long cycle time due to complexity so, maybe they don't wanna risk it?
    There's always AMD, Intel also maybe - TSMC won't have trouble selling those for sure!
  • NickConrad - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    "in the first quarter of 2023. Many observers, however, expected these chips to ship in late 2022."

    Those are the same thing. FYQ1 begins in October 2022.
  • Yojimbo - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    The US government's fiscal year starts in October. The point of a "fiscal year" is that every company can have its own. TSMC's fiscal 2020 ended December 31, 2020. So TSMC's fiscal year is apparently very well aligned with the calendar year.
  • Wereweeb - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    Big insular seppo energy
  • liahos1 - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    So if Intel stays on their Node roadmap (big if, I know), this means they are behind TSM by 1-2 quarters for 3nm and should be ahead of TSM by 2024 (20ang) ?
  • shabby - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    Lol if, when they stay on their roadmap for a few nodes then you say if, currently intels if has no value.
  • Yojimbo - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    It's not a big if. All indications are that Intel has confidence in its roadmap. I doubt Pat Gelsinger signed on to be a fall guy.

    Of course unforeseen complications can happen. But that's different from what was going on with Intel before. The unforeseen complications happened once or twice but Intel tried to obscure it while they were hoping they'd find a fix. That could very well be something going on with TSMC now, in fact. Notice that it's now slipped from 4 months delay to 6 months delay. Probably that's where it will stay, but TSMC management would likely be just as dodgy as Intel's was if there were some major issues to work out.

    The narrative that Intel has suddenly forgot how to do semiconductor engineering and TSMC has suddenly become an infallible leader is nonsense. It was only 2014 when TSMC last ran into major problems. But Samsung and GlobalFoundries did as well. Only Intel navigated the planar to finfet transition well and since Intel did not have a big foundry business TSMC was not burned by their poor execution.
  • Wereweeb - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    TSMC's FinFET nodes are usually one step ahead of it's competitors in performance, so they can afford to be conservative and take it slow with GAA. They could lose some space in ultra-low-power applications where GAA will shine, but sticking to FinFET means both cheaper wafers and more wafers. That in turn means they'll make healthy profits, while Samsung and Intel will be stuck with yield issues and an expensive and slow manufacturing process. By then TSMC will have to transverse a path already explored by the industry.

    Even if Samsung and Intel catch up in terms of node density and performance, TSMC will have more money to invest in R&D, which they could use to offer something neither of the other foundries have. And that's important: as Moore's Law decays in it's coma, the question of technology leadership will get more and more complex. It might soon be decided not necessarily by the silicon node, but by the maturity and cost/effectiveness of packaging technologies, or through the integration of new materials, equipment or techniques which make production easier (E.g. TSMC's EUV masks)
  • Yojimbo - Monday, October 18, 2021 - link

    TSMC never actually said N2 would be released in 2025. Wei only said (implicitly) that N2 would be TSMC's most advanced node in 2025. It does make sense that N2 would be released in 2025 because it doesn't make sense to miss the Apple order in 2024, assuming they can continue to win it. But neither the schedule of N3E nor the fact that Wei implied N2 would be TSMC's more advanced node in 2025 should be used to infer conclusively that N2 will only appear in 2025.

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