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(Image courtesy of GlobalFoundries).

GlobalFoundries Prepares Smaller Silicon After Skipping 10 Nanometers

Last year, GlobalFoundries said that it had skipped the 10nm chips that other contract manufacturers consider the next major step after current 14nm technology.

Instead, the company bet that 7nm chips will provide more meaningful improvements and boost its competitiveness with rivals like TSMC and Samsung. On Tuesday, it started giving customers the option to design chips for applications like smartphones and servers that could be manufactured on its 7nm production line.

GlobalFoundries said that the new technology provides around 40% more processing power and twice the area scaling than its previous 14nm chips. The company plans the first products using 7LP production to appear in the first half of 2018, while volume production will begin in the second half at the Fab 8 plant in Saratoga County, N.Y.

GlobalFoundries has “multiple product tapeouts planned in 2018,” said Greg Bartlett, senior vice president of the CMOS business unit, in a statement. Other foundries only started selling 10nm chips in the last few months.

The rejection of 10nm chips underlines both the harsh realities of the chip industry and the growing competition for foundry business. Fewer companies than ever can afford to spend billions of dollars on the back-breaking research and factories required to make the smallest and fastest chips.

Those that can muster the capital include Samsung, which recently spun out its foundry business into a new unit, and Intel, which is increasingly willing to take manufacturing orders. TSMC can also afford to develop new technology nodes: its manufacturing contracts with Apple and others last year came out to $29.5 billion, up from $24.1 billion in 2014.

These foundries have stuck largely to the script. In March, Samsung said that it had already shipped 70,000 wafers of 10nm technology, while TSMC said that it plans to rapidly increase 10nm output later this year. Intel waited longer to reveal 10nm technology but claimed that it is equivalent to rival 7nm chips.

In March, Intel divulged that its 10nm chips will contain 100.8 million transistors when shipped later this year. The spacing between the transistor fins measures only 34nm, down from the 42nm in previous 14nm chips. The shorter distances mean that more transistors can be packed into a given area.

But advances like Samsung's and Intel's could be short-lived. TSMC has announced plans to complete several 7nm tapeouts this year, while Intel is building a pilot plant for testing 7nm chips. Last month, Samsung said that it intends to start producing 8nm technologies this year, 7nm next year, and 4nm chips in 2020.

“By biting the bullet and skipping 10nm, GlobalFoundries opened up the technical bandwidth to attack 7nm head-on. Others have been dividing their resources and going for half- or even quarter-nodes,” said Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research, in a statement.

For now, GlobalFoundries will create 7nm chips using optical lithography to tattoo circuits onto layers of silicon. But that will shift to extreme ultraviolet lithography – which takes fewer steps and can etch smaller circuits – for volume production. The company plans to install two EUV tools this year.

GlobalFoundries started making 14nm chips last year out of its Fab 8 plant, whose capacity it plans to expand 20% by early next year. The company now has more than 20 customers for the technology including AMD, which is using the production process for its Polaris graphics chips.

There has been much hand-wringing over 5nm chips, which will require creative new ways to prevent current leakage from transistors. But along with IBM and Samsung, GlobalFoundries recently landed a coup, proving that it was feasible to create 5nm chips using silicon nanosheets surrounded by gates to prevent leakage.

Some industry analysts have been pleasantly surprised by the recent announcements. “I don’t think many would have called that GlobalFoundries would be on a bit of a roll right now,” Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy, wrote in a Tuesday column.

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