It seems that many suppliers of semiconductor products are now complaining about the overfilling of warehouses with finished products and sluggish customer demand, but according to individual sources, another crisis is brewing in the depths of the semiconductor industry. Photomasks for making chips may be in short supply. And the source of the problem is China.
South Korean edition The electric claims that major photomask suppliers such as Toppan, Photronics and Dai Nippon Printing have now reached full capacity and are seeing booming demand from Chinese customers. The latter are willing to pay a premium to shorten order processing times. To produce an integrated circuit of a design, several dozen photomasks are sometimes required, and their number increases as the technical process becomes more sophisticated. While a set of 30 photomasks is sometimes sufficient for demanding lithography applications, advanced technologies may require 70 to 80 photomasks per chip.
Due to increasing US sanctions, the Chinese semiconductor industry has been forced to become self-sufficient. Last year, there were 3,243 chip design companies in China. They all need contract manufacturers to use photomasks. SMIC, which this year demonstrated its ability to produce 7nm chips using older DUV lithography equipment, has become increasingly reliant on photomasks as such production methods increase the number of masks per chip.
Secondly, there are more developers of computing accelerators for artificial intelligence systems on the global market, which also require large sets of photomasks. The NVIDIA H100 GPU, for example, requires 89 photomasks for its production. According to manufacturers, the high demand for them will continue for at least another year. Toppan has already decided to increase production of photomasks. However, the pace of expansion will not be enough to prevent the price of this type of technological equipment from rising last year.