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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Intel should push 3D transistors into embedded says In-Stat

By Nick Flaherty

Market researchers In-Stat are highlighting the need for Intel to push its vertical FINFET transistors and 22nm process technology into the embedded market much more quickly.
"The development [of FINFETs] did not come out of thin air," says Jim McGregor, Chief Technology Strategist at market researchers In-Stat. "Intel and others in the industry have been working on 3D transistors for over a decade. Intel’s first paper on 3D transistors was presented in 2002. However, the industry often works on new technologies for extended periods of time, only being brought to market if and when they are proven to improve certain aspects of semiconductor technology and can be implemented in high volume manufacturing for and acceptable cost."
Intel indicated that the 3D transistor will add some additional process steps to manufacturing and approximately a 2%–3% increase in manufacturing cost, but it will not require any special tooling. This is good news for Intel and the rest of the industry, which is likely to adopt the technology in the future. Intel cites at least a three-year lead on other semiconductor manufacturers.
While the new technology will eventually benefit the entire semiconductor industry, it will also benefit Intel in its efforts to provide low-power products based on the company’s Atom processor architecture for other mobile, consumer, and embedded applications. 
According to Intel’s roadmap, the first products using the new technology will be PC processors and server processors slated for introduction in early 2012, which translates into production during the latter half of 2011. Intel will utilize the current 32nm process technology for the upcoming Atom-based products and utilize the 22nm process technology for the follow-on generation.
While Intel’s manufacturing plans are logical from a manufacturing standpoint, In-Stat believes that Intel would be better off pulling the upcoming generation of Atom products onto 22nm even if it resulted in a short delay, likely a few months, in releasing the products. Intel’s manufacturing strategy is driven by the dynamics of ramping a new process technology and the requirement to maximize the ROI. Ramping a new process is a very costly learning process. Semiconductor manufacturers try to begin manufacturing with modest yields while improving the yields with each lot until acceptable yields are reached and/or further improvements are too costly to implement (the point of diminishing returns). Semiconductor manufacturers also seek to ramp new processes as quick as possible to gain a competitive advantage in the market, reduce chip costs, and maximize the ROI on a huge investment in process R&D and manufacturing capacity. The natural way to accomplish these goals is to begin with the highest volume product, which is PC processors for Intel. However, Intel faces significant hurdles penetrating the consumer electronics markets. While the upcoming family of products may be competitive, Intel needs to leapfrog the competition if it hopes to unseat the incumbent semiconductor suppliers in these new markets, especially the billion unit handset market. While moving the upcoming Atom products to 22nm would still not guarantee Intel success in the consumer electronics markets, it could provide a must needed boost.
The transition to 3D transistors is another step in overcoming the roadblocks in advancing Moore’s Law for at least several more process generations and the 22nm process technology and 3D transistors also ensure a continued trend in performance and power efficiency for the next generation of electronic devices.

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