Intel goes full foundry

March 28, 2021 // By Nick Flaherty
Intel goes full foundry
Intel’s move back into the foundry business is politically astute, especially for Europe, writes Nick Flaherty

Intel has returned to the foundry business in a big way.

The IDM2.0 plans are a step forward in design, manufacturing and also geopolitics, and this time will be different to the last attempt at foundry seven years ago, says new CEO Pat Gelsinger.

Now the company has a much wider array of technology to offer, and is prepared to offer it to customers. In a dramatic break from the past, the company is offering its x86 processor core technology as well as ARM (remember its StrongARM and Xscale chip designs in the late 1990s) and even RISC-V open source cores. All of this will be available alongside separate GPU, high speed networking and memory IP that will appeal to data centre ASIC chip designers.

What it doesn’t really have is the leading edge technology. The foundry business is starting at 22nm, and highlights the struggles Intel has had with leading edge process technology. While it can potentially offer its current 10nm SuperFET variant of FinFET technology, the company has lagged behind TSMC and Samsung.

Gelsinger says the issues with extreme UV (EUV) at 7nm have been resolved and will be used for the next generation processors later this year. That is a welcome move, but not enough. The issue is the geopolitics of access to high volume leading edge technology in Europe as well as the US. Intel is promising two new plants on its Arizona campus with a $20bn investment, perhaps as a foil to TSMC’s plan for six fabs on a site in the same state. All of this is intended to reassure large global customers that their supplies of essential semiconductors is robust.

The company also points to $15bn spent on manufacturing capacity in Europe since 1989, doubling the manufacturing space in Ireland with an additional $7bn up to this year.

“This investment is designed to bring Intel’s latest generation 7nm process technology to the region and expand our manufacturing operations. It will also drive economic growth in the region, creating 1,600 permanent high-tech jobs once complete and over 5,000 construction jobs,” said Eamonn Sinnott, Vice President, Manufacturing and Operations and General Manager, Intel Ireland (above). But there is more to come, and that will depend on how much support is provided by the EU. 

“We plan to announce the next phase of expansions to support our new foundry business in the US, Europe and other global locations within the year,” he said. Intel employs over 10,000 people across Europe. Teams in Ireland, Germany, Poland, France and other European countries work throughout the supply chain, ranging from R&D to manufacturing, powering innovation globally. This to a certain extent will depend on the response from the EU. Intel has very cleverly aligned itself with the Europe 2030 strategy to bring more leading edge chip making capacity to the region. Ireland is at the heart of this.

“We are accelerating investment in Europe and supporting the EU’s ambition of having 20 percent of the world’s cutting-edge chips manufactured locally,” he said. “Our investments here in Europe have created a hub of advanced manufacturing that, coupled with our diverse capabilities across the region, puts us in a unique position to support the EU agenda of securing the supply of advanced semiconductors for the European market and beyond,” said Sinnott.

“We have a shared ambition with the EU to deliver state-of-the-art semiconductor technology to Europe and create a more geographically balanced manufacturing capacity. Intel is uniquely positioned to support the EU’s vision for a digital transformation by 2030,” he said. In a clear message, he says: “Intel values business environments and policies across the globe that encourage investment in semiconductor innovation and manufacturing.”

The next move will have to come from the EU to show it is serious about supporting the semiconductor supply chain.

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