Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Texas Instruments, what do all those companies have in common? They design chips, but they don’t actually make them. That incredibly difficult task is done by TSMC, short for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. They just posted their Q1 2012 financial results, and profits are down 7.7% year over year. Why’s that? Two reasons. First, the economy hasn’t exactly been what anyone would call stellar. Yes, companies are selling more smartphones than they ever have before, but a lot of those devices are using chips that have just been sitting in shortage. Which brings us to the second reason why profits are down, investment in future fabrication plants. TSMC can’t sit still in an industry where other companies are creating more advanced technology. In the case of processor manufacturing, investing in factories that can make chips that use ever shrinking transistors is something that can’t be avoided. Right now about 5% of TSMC’s revenues come from their most cutting edge 28 nanometer fabrication process; the most notable chip using that process is one you’ve likely heard about, the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. That number should increase to 20% of revenues by the end of the year.
So what’s next? Even smaller transistors! We’re talking 20 nanometers, which is 2 nanometers smaller than Intel’s latest and greatest technology. We should start seeing 20 nanometer TSMC chips in 2013, though we have absolutely no idea if that means first half or second half. If we had to take a guess, we’d say second half. Thinking about the type of chips that’ll be possible when you move down to a 20 nanometer process, we’re expecting specs like quad core ARM Cortex A15, and likely the introduction of graphics processors that are at least an order of magnitutde faster than what’s currently out on the market.
Watch this space. It moves fast. Really fast.