IC design has emerged as the largest semiconductor sector in China, with 2017 revenues of $31.9 billion generated by about 1,380 companies. At the same time, China’s fabless segment has risen to third in global rankings with about one-tenth of worldwide sales.
Most of China’s fabless segment produces the logic chips that are key to defense, telecommunications, finance and other industries important to the region’s national security interests and its independence from U.S. and other international suppliers. Investment in fabless logic continues to be the top priority in China’s Phase 2 investment. In mobile, China made meaningful progress through HiSilicon and Spreadtrum, both fabless design houses.
In 2017, HiSilicon and UNISOC (formerly Spreadtrum), China’s two largest domestic IC design companies, were ranked in the global top 10 of fabless companies, though most Chinese IC design companies are small, with revenues under $1 million. Working with domestic smartphone makers, both companies have carved out a strong presence in logic and, in particular, the communications and application processors that power data centers and Internet of Things (IoT).
Despite their rapid rise, China’s AI accelerators and cryptocurrency ASIC suppliers have yet to appear in China’s top 10. However, we expect their aggressive roadmaps and early adoption of leading-edge process technologies to propel them into the top 10 in the near future.
As illustrated in the figure below, an examination of the competitiveness of China’s semiconductor segments reveals that the close proximity of China’s fabless companies to the region’s electronic systems makers plays to their advantage, though access to IP and leading-edge process technologies is a barrier to their growth in the near term. A key barrier to China’s foundries is their limited ability to develop leading-edge process technologies and strategic relationships with top international fabless companies.
Most leading international fabless companies rely on customer-owned tooling (COT) and design tools for design. As the approach takes time to develop, it will not support China’s aggressive goal and timeline to independently meet domestic IC demand. Instead, China has been disciplined in executing its strategy to acquire valuable IP and leading-edge technologies by aggressively partnering with international fabless design leaders and pursuing deals with market leaders and laggards. The initial entry point for Chinese fabless companies was the low-margin consumer applications dominated by Chinese suppliers, giving them considerable control over demand. In addition, Chinese companies have aggressively hired top talent from abroad and grown the skills of its engineering workforce to sustain innovation. China will likely free itself from its reliance on non-Chinese developed manufacturing process technology and EDA design tools.
China’s semiconductor design growth, concentrated in the Pearl River Delta (see figure below), is fueled by national and local investment programs.
SEMI August 2018
The Pearl River Delta, which includes Xiamen, Quanzhou and Shenzhen, is establishing itself as China’s IC design, system and application hub. Domestic and international companies are eligible for investment provided they are established or investing in one of the four regionshat are home to various sectors of the electronics and semiconductor supply chain. Access to large investment funds, coupled with China’s infrastructure build-out, is a strong supporting force to drive the growth of top-tier domestic fabless companies. For its part, the Phase 2 of China’s National Investment Fund targets investments of RMB 150 - 200 billion ($23 billion - $30 billion) in IC design. The growing domestic consumer base and infrastructure investment will drive opportunities for China’s fabless companies over the next decade.
China IC Ecosystem Report covers the rise of China’s IC industry, national and local government policies, public and private funding, and their implications for China's IC supply chain. The report also compares key domestic companies and their international peers segment by segment.
Eugenia Liu is a senior product marketing manager at SEMI. Shanshan Du is chief analyst and program director at SEMI China.