We are talking about 10nm chips developed by TSMC using a combination of integrated fan-out (InFO) wafer-level packaging (WLP) and the FinFET processes, similar to the alleged 16nm chips that Apple will use in this year's smartphone lineup, which has been referenced so far as “iPhone 7.” While this year's iPhone devices are expected to pack significantly more battery life than ever before (around 14 percent), the company's smartphone lineup for 2017 is expected to be a more significant hardware overhaul than the units releasing this fall. Rumors predicted so far, mostly fueled by analysts at stock market investment groups, suggest an OLED display panel, a redesigned glass body and wireless charging, to name a few.
Sources in the supply chain have also confirmed that TSMC will again offer its backend integrated fan-out (InFo) wafer-level packaging (WLP) technology for producing 10nm A11 chips rather than other in-house packaging methods known to the industry. During a conference call last year, the company confirmed its 10nm process has a logic density of 2.1 times its previous 16nm FinFET Plus technology, with a 20 percent performance improvement and 40 percent reduction in power consumption.
TSMC will also manufacture Apple’s OLED driver ICs
According to the sources, TSMC has also been contracted to manufacture the driver ICs for OLED panels in Apple's smartphone lineup planned for next year. The OLED panels themselves will be supplied by Korea-based panel vendors, while Apple will develop its own proprietary OLED driver ICs and have them manufactured by TSMC.
Apple A11 tapeout began in May, certification comes in Q1 2017
Back in May, we reported that TSMC had begun to tape out the design of Apple’s A11 SoC lineup built using a 10nm FinFET process, with certification expected in the fourth quarter of this year and validation in Q1 2017. TSMC was originally expected to receive roughly two-thirds of all A11 chip orders, but Economic Daily News reported in July that Apple had rejected a bid from Samsung to produce the chips and instead gave TSMC full responsibility of all A11 manufacturing. The company’s reasoning stems from heat output and battery consumption differences between Samsung-produced A9 chips and TSMC-produced A9 chips for the iPhone 6S. Samsung used a 14nm process, whereas TSMC used 16nm and many iPhone 6S owners have been voicing concerns over performance, heat output and battery draw differences between the two differently fabricated chips ever since.
Industry faces rising costs with 10nm and 7nm process nodes
The gradual decline in yearly hardware improvements is an industry-wide phenomenon that has unfortunately become common since at least 2012 with the rise of 3D transistor technology. This was the point when chip manufacturers had to start getting creative to combat uncertainties surrounding Moore’s Law and planar chip technologies, using methods that were nonetheless huge breakthroughs in chip design and engineering (2.5D, FinFET, 3D-on-3D with TSVs and big.LITTLE) to name a few, but have ultimately led to rising costs that are soon to be astronomical (see: 7nm) compared to just a few years ago. Extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) has been proposed as the next major breakthrough, but it may not become available until 7nm or later.