– Seven things that surprised us at TSMC event – Seven things that surprised us at TSMC event.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — I’ve attended TSMC’s Technology Symposiums for many years.

Like past years, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) presented a dizzying array of technology and new processes at this year’s event. It presented new roadmaps in CMOS processes, analog, MEMS, RF and other areas. Here were the surprises and my observations at the one-day event:

1. Morris Chang. Last year, Chang, 79, regained the CEO title at TSMC. He’s running the ship amid a chaotic time in the IC industry. But during a keynote this week, Chang seemed as vibrant and feisty as he was when I first met him in the early 1990s. More importantly, he seems to have restored customer confidence after the company experienced a snafu at the 40-nm node. And with Chang at the helm, the company is far more aggressive in terms of capital spending, R&D and hiring. In fact, Chang said TSMC will expand its workforce from 25,000 today to 29,000 by year’s end.

Simply put, TSMC is back on track–much to the chagrin of its rivals.

2. We want capacity! During the keynote, Chang on several occasions said that the company is expanding its fab capacity. Why? The company has been sold out of fab capacity for some time and customers are screaming for more capacity. But my feeling is that TSMC is still being careful about its capacity expansion plans.

Last year, margins were relatively lousy amid the IC downturn. This year, it is enjoying the boom cycle–and margins. So why spoil the party? On the other hand, TSMC has some new competitors–all of which would love to take same business away from the foundry king.

3. Nerves of steel. TSMC has always been a confident company. Almost too cocky. And a little arrogant at times, which is not a bad trait if you’re the best in the business. In the past, though, it never really respected its competitors. I remember when it even dismissed IBM and Samsung.

To me, there is a new sense of uneasiness at TSMC: It is finally taking notice of the competition. In fact, there is a new sense of respect for the competitors at TSMC. GlobalFoundries has emerged and Samsung is finally serious about the foundry business.

In recent times, TSMC left its rivals in the dust. However, TSMC stumbled at the 40-nm node with lackluster yields. It was a humbling experience. Now, the company has some real competition. Let the battle begin.

4. TSV delays? Chip scaling is showing no signs of hitting the wall–yet. But one alternative path–3-D technology based on through-silicon vias (TSVs)–continues to generate steam.

In years’ past, TSMC provided a roadmap for its TSV production efforts. At this year’s event, the company was low-key about TSVs. It didn’t provide a timeline to develop the technology, nor did it give us a real progress report. ”We’re still in the early stages” with TSVs, said Shang-yi Chiang, TSMC’s senior vice president of research and development.

Translation: Cost and complexity is still a problem with TSVs. Or perhaps TSV has been delayed at TSMC and elsewhere.

5. FinFET city. Seeking to take the lead in the silicon foundry business, TSMC will jump directly from 28- to the 20-nm “half node” process technology.

What’s after the 20-nm node? Chiang believes that 20-nm could be the last year that TSMC uses a CMOS planar process. After bulk silicon, TSMC is banking on the FinFET as the next-generation transistor. For years, TSMC has been looking at the FinFET, a double-gate transistor. The surprise is that TSMC appears to have already made a decision on that technology. Other leading-edge chip makers are still exploring multi-gate structures.

6. TSMC branded LEDs. In March, TSMC held a groundbreaking ceremony for an R&D center and wafer fab to develop and make light emitting diodes (LEDs) for lighting applications.

The move marks a major change at TSMC, which has until this point been focused on the foundry supply of integrated circuits. In fact, TSMC will not provide foundry services for LED makers. Instead, the company will develop and sell LEDs under the ”TSMC brand,” according to a TSMC spokesman. TSMC will not compete against its customers, the spokesman insisted.

7. Solar strategy. TSMC is still exploring its strategy in solar. Like LEDs, the company may sell solar panels and the associated modules under its own name, the company hinted. Don’t look for a solar foundry service. I don’t know for certain, but TSMC may be even mulling plans to jump into the utility business.

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