One year after officially taking a chip manufacturing lead that had long belonged to Intel, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) shows no signs of slowing down.
And that in turn is good news for a long list of major chip developers relying on the company.
On Friday, TSMC confirmed that its 3-nanometer (3nm) manufacturing process node will see volume production commence in 2022. That implies 3nm chips will arrive about two years after we see chips relying on TSMC's 5nm node, which is due to enter volume production in the first half of 2020, hit the market.
As a rule, each new node brings with it improvements in transistor density/cost, performance (clock speeds) and power efficiency. While TSMC hasn't yet shared specifics about the improvements that its 3nm node will deliver, the company has forecast that its first 5nm process (known as N5) will deliver about 80% greater transistor density, a 15% improvement in performance and a 20% improvement in power efficiency relative to the first process for its 7nm node (known as N7), which entered volume production last year.
N7's arrival was something of a watershed moment for the chip industry, since -- due to major delays for a 10nm Intel node that's seen as competitive with TSMC's 7nm node -- it was technically superior to anything that Intel was mass-producing chips with at the time.
In recent months, Intel has begun shipping 10nm notebook processors, as well as some non-CPU, 10nm products. However, its first 10nm server CPUs aren't expected to ship in volume until the second half of 2020, and the company hasn't shared yet when it will begin shipping 10nm desktop CPUs.
As Intel finally ramps 10nm production, TSMC is getting ready to ramp its first 5nm process, which will probably be used next year to manufacture the A-series system-on-chip (SoC) that will power Apple's (AAPL) 2020 iPhones. Meanwhile, around the time that Intel plans to ramp a 7nm node that should be competitive with TSMC's 5nm node -- Intel plans to launch a 7nm server GPU in 2021, followed by 7nm CPUs in 2022 -- TSMC plans to ramp its 3nm node.
Provided that TSMC keeps making good on its promises, it could maintain a manufacturing tech lead against Intel for some time. In addition, though it's a little behind TSMC, Samsung isn't a slouch either in terms of commercializing advanced manufacturing processes.
All of this is naturally good news for Intel rivals relying on TSMC and/or Samsung.
AMD (AMD) , which has rolled out 7nm desktop and server CPUs this year and is expected to unveil 7nm notebook processors in early 2020, is of course a prominent name on this list. But there are several others as well.
Earlier this week, Amazon.com (AMZN) unveiled a 7nm, ARM-architecture, server CPU (the Graviton2) for AWS cloud computing instances that's far more powerful than its 16nm predecessor. With the caveat that software support can still be a handicap for ARM server adoption, the Graviton2 is claimed to deliver a 40% price/performance edge relative to existing Intel server CPUs for popular workloads.
Apple, meanwhile, is reportedly working on ARM-based Mac processors that stand to displace Intel CPUs within its Mac lineup; should these chips arrive, it's quite likely that they would be made by TSMC. And when it comes to products such as GPUs, FPGAs and AI accelerator ASICs, Intel is frequently competing against offerings from TSMC clients such as Nvidia (NVDA) , Xilinx (XLNX) and Huawei.
To be fair to Intel, the company is promising that its 7nm node will deliver a full 100% improvement in transistor density relative to its 10nm node, as well as a 4x reduction in design rule complexity that should make it easier to roll out products. And for both 10nm and 7nm, the company is promising healthy intra-node manufacturing process improvements in the coming years, as it gradually improves on the initial process launched for a node.
Also, Intel's fights against various TSMC clients aren't just going to boil down to manufacturing tech. Things like Intel's plans to steadily roll out more advanced CPU core microarchitectures, its development of cutting-edge chip packaging technologies and the investments it continues making in strengthening its software ecosystem could also play important roles.
With all that said, having to potentially battle everyone from AMD to Apple to Huawei while being a step behind in terms of manufacturing tech is a less-than-ideal state of affairs for Intel, and a very different one than what the company has been accustomed to in the past.