AMD Might Have to Wait Behind Intel and Apple for TSMC’s 3nm Wafers
Recently we’ve reported on the high-stakes bidding war unfolding behind the scenes over TSMC’s upcoming 3nm node. Its 5nm process is/was an unquestioned success and its 3nm process node is expected to lead the industry as well. The only question is which companies would have deep enough pockets to secure it. We’ve speculated previously that it would be Intel and Apple. Now a report from Digitimes confirms this is indeed happening. That by itself is just confirmation of earlier reports, but the new twist is that it might leave AMD out in the cold.
The new reporting is from Digitimes via Wccftech, and it states that AMD is planning on using TSMC 3nm for its Zen 5 CPUs. As a refresher, the company is using TSMC’s 5nm node currently on its Zen 4 architecture, which should debut later this year. After that it was apparently hoping to jump to the newer node, but apparently Apple and Intel have already secured the entirety of TSMC’s wafer capacity. Apple is reportedly using it for its M2 silicon, and Intel needs it for its Meteor Lake GPU tiles. TSMC is expected to begin production at 3nm later this year, with mass production starting in 2023. However, if TSMC is only capable of filling orders for Intel and Apple through next year, that’ll push AMD to the back of the line. This could force the company to have to wait until 2024, or even 2025, to get access to its most advanced node. Digitimes notes that Nvidia and Mediatek might also be affected by TSMC’s prioritization of Apple and Intel. As we wrote previously, everybody wants a piece of that 3nm node.
One point to note, however: A fast shift to 3nm would be unusual for AMD. It’s been years since GPUs or CPUs led node launches; mobile chips are always the first to debut. A fast shift from 5nm to 3nm would have been unusual. Several generations of 5nm product would be normal based on Ryzen’s development timeline.
At first blush, this seems like a big problem for AMD. However, assuming Zen 4 launches in late 2022, that would mean Zen 5 could appear roughly two years later. This is a similar cadence the company has followed from Zen 2 to Zen 3, so it might not be that large of a disruption after all. Also AMD doesn’t have to worry about Intel getting 3nm CPUs from TSMC, as Intel will be making the majority of its own CPUs in its own fabs. Intel has also argued that node superiority will soon be a vestige of the past as packaging technology takes a more prominent role in an architecture’s performance profile.
It’s also quite possible that AMD could stick with 5nm for Zen 5 too. After all, it used TSMC’s 7nm node for both Zen 2 and 3. However, it wasn’t facing down a revitalized Intel in those days. By 2025 Intel has announced it will have already moved beyond FinFET to its next generation technology. This includes a new RibbonFET gate-all-around transistor and PowerVIA interconnect technology. These are expected to appear on its tile-based Arrow Lake architecture. Intel isn’t blowing smoke this time either, as it’s already announced it’s ahead of schedule with its advanced node development. This could put AMD in a tight spot come 2025.
As for why TSMC might be prioritizing Intel and Apple, let’s look at the number the companies recently posted. Apple announced its first quarter revenue for 2022 was a staggering $97.3 billion, and $25 billion of that was profit. Intel posted $18.4 billion in revenue for the first quarter (a seven percent year-over-year decline). AMD will post its Q1 earnings on May 3rd, but they’re expected to be approximately $5 billion. Clearly Intel and Apple have bigger bank accounts. Also, both companies seem willing to open their check books, no matter what the cost. One final interesting note is we previously reported Intel wanted to get its hands on TSMC’s 3nm capacity without upsetting Apple. Intel even sent its reps to Taiwan to handle the deal directly. Apparently, the company has succeeded, though we’d still treat all this as speculation until we hear it directly from TSMC.