GlobalFoundries Halts 7-Nanometer Chip Development

After installing extreme-ultraviolet lithography, foundry finds it doesn’t have enough customers for it

2012 photograph of Global Foundries' Malta, NY location.
Photo: Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
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In a major shift in strategy, GlobalFoundries is halting its development of next-generation chipmaking processes. It had planned to move to the so-called 7-nm node, then begin to use extreme-ultraviolet lithography (EUV) to make that process cheaper. From there, it planned to develop even more advanced lithography that would allow for 5- and 3-nanometer nodes. Despite having installed at least one EUV machine at its Fab 8 facility in Malta, N.Y., all those plans are now on indefinite hold, the company announced Monday. 

The move leaves only three companies reaching for the highest rungs of the Moore’s Law ladder: Intel, Samsung, and TSMC.

It’s a huge turnabout for GlobalFoundries. During a tour of Fab 8 last October, executives told IEEE Spectrum that 7-nm chips would be, at the very least, in limited production by the close of 2018. At the time, the company was completing installation of its first EUV lithography machine, a delicate and extremely expensive task.

GlobalFoundries rationale for the move is that there are not enough customers that need bleeding-edge 7-nm processes to make it profitable. “While the leading edge gets most of the headlines, fewer customers can afford the transition to 7 nm and finer geometries,” said Samuel Wang, research vice president at Gartner, in a GlobalFoundries press release

“The vast majority of today’s fabless customers are looking to get more value out of each technology generation to leverage the substantial investments required to design into each technology node,” explained GlobalFoundries CEO Tom Caulfield in a press release. “Essentially, these nodes are transitioning to design platforms serving multiple waves of applications, giving each node greater longevity. This industry dynamic has resulted in fewer fabless clients designing into the outer limits of Moore’s Law. We are shifting our resources and focus by doubling down on our investments in differentiated technologies across our entire portfolio that are most relevant to our clients in growing market segments.”

(The dynamic Caulfield describes is something the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Agency is working to disrupt with its $1.5-billion Electronics Resurgence Initiative. Darpa’s partners are trying to collapse the cost of design and allow older process nodes to keep improving by using 3D technology.)

Specifically, GlobalFoundries is doubling down on chips made using it’s 14/12-nm FinFET process and plans to expand and develop the set of features offered at that node such as RF, embedded memory, low power, and other technologies. “Lifting the burden of investing at the leading edge will allow GF to make more targeted investments in technologies that really matter to the majority of chip designers in fast-growing markets such as RF, IoT, 5G, industrial, and automotive,” said Gartner’s Wang.

Pressing pause on advanced manufacturing nodes was a wise move because it will improve GlobalFoundries financial prospects, according to VLSI Research analyst G. Dan Hutcheson. “If you’re a customer your biggest question is not just the technology but financially stability,” he says. Foundries “really have to have a path to profitability.” 

GlobalFoundries isn’t the only company struggling with its crawl further down the Moore’s Law rabbit hole. Recently, Intel revealed that it was delaying its move to a 10-nm process until 2019. (Intel’s 10-nm process is thought to be roughly equivalent to others’ 7-nm processes.) That puts a yawning five-year gap between manufacturing nodes for the company. 

The delay has allowed TSMC, which began offering 7-nm this year, to pass Intel. AMD, once GlobalFoundries’ biggest processor customer, has already been working with TSMC on 7-nm chips and—in line with GlobalFoundries plans—announced that it will focus “the breadth” its 7-nm resources there going forward.

In a blog post Monday, AMD CTO Mark Papermaster wrote that the company’s first 7-nm GPU will come out later this year, and its first 7-nm server processor will launch in 2019. That would put AMD on a more advanced manufacturing node than Intel for the first time this century, notes ExtremeTech.

Of the remaining three bleeding-edge manufacturers, only TSMC doesn’t compete directly with at least some potential customers. “It puts TSMC in a very unique position, and I’m sure they’ll leverage that,” says VLSI’s Hutcheson.

The change at GlobalFoundries will involve layoffs among the staff at Malta. The number could be in the hundreds, according to The Albany Business Review.  

This post was corrected on 18 September. Mark Papermaster is AMD’s CTO not it’s CEO. (That’s Lisa Su.)

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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.