Intel on Thursday demonstrated a chip-studded silicon wafer created with a production process due in 2025, a signal that should reassure customers that there are years of difficulties in chip production.
“We are meeting or ahead of schedule according to the deadlines we have set,” CEO Pat Gelsinger said of the company’s plan to improve production processes. It showcased a brilliant plate of memory chips created using Intel’s future 18A process, which reviews the transistors underlying the chipset and the way power is supplied to them.
Intel is trying to significantly accelerate production progress to reach the 2025 goal of regaining leadership in chip performance, which it lost to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and Samsung. If this succeeds, it will mean that PC chips will evolve faster after decades and a half of dim performance improvements. And that could mean Intel is becoming more relevant to your digital life by creating chips inside your car’s video card, phone and gaming PC.
The effort is based on five new production processes over four years: Intel 7 in 2021 with Alder Lake chips now running on PCs, Intel 4 in 2022, Intel 3 in 2023, Intel 20A in early 2024 and Intel 18A at the end of 2024 – although the lag between the availability of production and product delivery means that 18 A chips will not arrive until 2025. The plate show is “proof” that Intel is on the right track, Helsinger said.
Gelsinger, a chip engineer who returned to Intel a year ago, is bringing technology to the CEO, but the company will have a hard time making it back. If the chipmaker lags behind the advanced ones, as IBM and GlobalFoundries have done in recent years, it will be harder to justify the colossal investment needed to transition to the new technology.
The epitome of Intel complexityfrom their Macs in favor of their own M-Series chips created by TSMC. At the same time, AMD is gaining market share, Nvidia is making money from gaming and AI, and Amazon has introduced its own server processors.
Helsinger spoke at Intel Investor Day, where he and other executives tried to convince often skeptical analysts that the company’s huge costs for new chipmaking equipment would pay off. This will be due to premium products and external customers arriving to use the foundry’s new production facilities.
The Intel 20A makes two major changes to the chip design, RibbonFET and PowerVia, and the Intel 18A improves it to improve performance. RibbonFET is Intel’s view of transistor technology called gate all around, in which the gate that detects whether a transistor is on or off is completely wrapped around ribbon channels that conduct electricity.
And PowerVia supplies electricity to the bottom of the transistor, freeing up the top surface for additional data link circuits. Intel is playing catch-up with RibbonFET, but it has an advantage with PowerVia, which the industry calls back energy delivery.
Intel insists on another device – packaging technology, which combines different “chips” into one more powerful processor. A member of the Intel Xeon server family, Sapphire Lake, which arrives this year, uses one packaging option called EMIB, while the Meteor Lake PC chip, which arrives in 2023, uses another, called Foveros.
New processors for Intel PCs on the way
Intel built its first prototype Meteor Lake in the last quarter of 2021 using the Intel 4 process and downloaded them to a PC, said Anne Kelleher, executive vice president who heads Intel’s technology development department.
“It’s one of the best startups of leading products we’ve seen over the last four generations of technology,” Keleher said. “During its lifetime, Meteor Lake will supply hundreds of millions of units, offering the most vivid demonstration of advanced packaging technology in bulk.”
Packaging will play a role in future PC processors, including Arrow Lake in 2024, which will include the first chips created with the Intel 20A. After that comes Lunar Lake, which will use Intel 18A chips. Meteor Lake and Arrow Lake will use a new graphics chip architecture that Intel promises will be a “big step forward,” which is important given that graphics chips these days do much more than draw pixels on your screen – such as AI and video image processing.
Kelleher also spoke in detail about the set research and change production to prevent catastrophic problems Intel has faced in recent years. First, the improvements are now modular, so a problem with one should not frustrate others. On the other hand, Intel develops plans in case of problems in emergencies. And it pays more attention to the advice of chip equipment vendors such as ASML.