What the GlobalFoundries’ Retreat Really Means

Things will never be the same for consumer devices

4 min read
Illustration of an upwards arrow, broken, as in Moore's Law discontinued.
Illustration: iStockphoto

For most of our lives, the idea that computers and technology would get better, faster, and cheaper every year was as assured as the sun rising every morning. The story “GlobalFoundries Halts 7-nm Chip Development,” in IEEE Spectrum, doesn’t sound like the end of that era, but for you and anyone who uses an electronic device, it most certainly is.

Technology innovation is going to take a different direction.

GlobalFoundries was one of the three companies that made the most advanced silicon chips for other companies, such as AMD, IBM, Broadcom, Qualcomm, STM and the Department of Defense.) The other foundries are Samsung in South Korea and TSMC in Taiwan. Now there are only two pursuing the leading edge. (Intel too is pursuing these advanced chips, but its business making chips for other companies is relatively small.)

This is a big deal.

Since the invention of the integrated circuit about 60 years ago, computer chip manufacturers have been able to pack more transistors onto a single piece of silicon every year. In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, observed that the number of transistors was doubling every 24 months and would continue to do so. For 40 years, the chip industry managed to live up to that prediction. The first integrated circuits in 1960 had about 10 transistors. Today the most complex silicon chips have 10 billion. Think about it. Silicon chips can now hold a billion times as many transistors.

But Moore’s Law ended a decade ago. Consumers just didn’t get the memo.

Chips are lithographically printed using exotic chemicals and materials in a fab. Packing more transistors in each generation of chips requires the fab to shrink the size of the transistors. The first transistors were printed with lines 80 micrometers wide. Today Samsung and TSMC are pushing to produce chips with features only a few dozen nanometers across. That’s about a 2,000-to-1 reduction.

Each new generation of chips that shrinks the line widths requires fabs to invest enormous amounts of money in new chipmaking equipment.  While the first fabs cost a few million dollars, today’s fabs—the ones that push the bleeding edge—are $10 billion facilities.

Moore's Law ended a decade ago. Consumers just didn't get the memo

And the exploding cost of the fab is not the only issue with packing more transistors on chips. Each shrinkage of chip line widths requires more complexity. Features have to be precisely placed at exact locations with each lithographic printing step. At 7 nanometers, this requires up to 80 such steps.

The other limitation to packing more transistors onto to a chip is called Dennard scaling: As transistors get smaller, their power density stays constant, so that the power use stays in proportion with area. But basic physics has stopped Dennard scaling, creating a “Power Wall”—a barrier to clock speed—that has limited microprocessor frequency to around 4 gigahertz since 2005.  It’s also why memory density is not going to increase at the rate we saw a decade ago.

The problem of continuing to shrink transistors in a post-Dennard era is so hard that even Intel, the leader in microprocessors and for decades the gold standard in leading fab technology, has stumbled. Industry observers have suggested that Intel has hit several speed bumps on the way to its next generation push to 10- and 7-nm designs, and now is trailing TSMC and Samsung.

The combination of spiraling fab cost, technology barriers, power density limits, and diminishing returns is the reason GlobalFoundries threw in the towel. It also means the future direction of innovation on silicon is no longer predictable.

The end of putting more transistors on a single chip doesn’t mean the end of innovation in computers or mobile devices. (To be clear, the bleeding edge will advance, but almost imperceptibly year-to-year; and GlobalFoundaries isn’t shutting down, it’s just no longer going to be the one pushing the edge.)

But what it does mean is that we’re at the end of guaranteed year-to-year growth in computing power. The result is the end of the type of innovation we’ve been used to for the last 60 yearsInstead of just faster versions of what we’ve been used to seeing, device designers now need to get more creative with the 10 billion transistors they already have to work with.

It’s worth remembering that human brains have had 100 billion neurons for at least the last 35,000 years. Yet we’ve learned to do a lot more with the same compute power. The same will hold true with semiconductors. We’re going to figure out radically new ways to use those 10 billion transistors.

For example, there are new chip architectures coming, such as massively parallel CPUs and special purpose silicon for AI and other types of machine learning, new ways to package the chips and to interconnect memory, and even new types of memory. And other designs are pushing for extreme low power usage and others for very low cost.

So, what does this mean for consumers? First, high performance applications that needed very fast computing will continue their move from your local device to the cloud, further enabled by new 5G networks. Second, while computing devices we buy will not be much faster on today’s off-the-shelf software, new features—facial recognition, augmented reality, autonomous navigation, and apps we haven’t even thought about—are going to come from software using new displays, sensors, and other still-in-prototype technology.

The world of computing is moving into new and uncharted territory. For desktop and mobile devices, the need for a “must have” upgrade won’t be for speed, but for new capabilities.

For the first time in half a century, the rules for chip manufacturers have changed. There will be a new set of winners and losers in this transition. It will be exciting to watch and see what emerges from the fog.

About the Author

Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship. Credited with launching the Lean Startup movement, he’s changed how startups are built, how entrepreneurship is taught, how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. Blank is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner’s Manual. His May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement. 

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