IBM, Samsung, GlobalFoundries and STMicro To Form 28nm Manufacturing Alliance

As process geometries shrink, the cost and complexity of manufacturing products that use them continues to rise. This fact has had a significant impact on the semiconductor industry as various foundries have either struggled to ramp production on a new process (TSMC's 40nm) or have delayed beginning their own transitions. Companies that once might have developed their own manufacturing capabilities have announced alliances in order to pool collective knowledge and talent.

Late last week, Samsung, STMicroelectronics, IBM, and GlobalFoundries jointly announced that they intend to work together on 28nm technology. According to GlobalFoundries, the alliance will synchronize semiconductor manufacturing and development in a manner that will give customers' access to additional manufacturing capability without first having to redesign their products to fit an individual foundry's process technology.

"IBM has extensive experience synchronizing multiple fabs, where we match rigorous manufacturing specifications to critical design parameters," said Gary Patton, Vice President for IBM's Semiconductor Research and Development Center. "The result is that our advanced technology can be implemented in many fabs around the world and produce the same results, providing clients with multiple suppliers for their product designs."

The companies in question are collaborating on 28nm low-power technology; chips built using this process are intended for handheld devices, smartbooks, some netbooks, MP3 players, and any number of devices "capable of handling streaming video, data, voice, social networking and mobile commerce applications."

In the past, most of the industry focus has been on the race between Intel and AMD as they ramped high performance silicon, but this is yet another sign that the factors that drive the industry are changing. Now, consumer interest is fixed on how much power can be stuffed into handheld gadgetry. That's generally a question of battery life and heat production, both of which are heavily impacted by a processor's power efficiency and manufacturing process.

ARM vs. Atom: Immovable Object vs. Unstoppable Force

GlobalFoundries roadmap doesn't reference low-power 28nm production, but we're guessing the term as its used here is analogous to the company's super-low power (SLP) 28nm. At present, GF projects it'll begin to ramp manufacturing of 28nm SLP in the first quarter of 2011, which loosely fits with the PR prediction that "The first fab to complete synchronization of the 28nm low-power technology process is targeted for late 2010, with product introduction to follow soon after."

"The Common Platform alliance [AMD+IBM] has been collaborating with ARM and Synopsys on the development of a comprehensive 32/28nm Systems-on-a-Chip (SoCs) design platform based on HKMG technology. ARM has developed an intellectual property (IP) portfolio integrating leading edge HKMG process technology with ARM advanced microprocessor cores and physical IP including logic, memory and interface products for distribution to their customers. Synopsys has developed a 32/28nm optimized design enablement solution, IP, design tools and methodology optimized for the alliance's HKMG technology."

Intel's plans to introduce a 32nm Atom in H2 2010 are at least partially responsible for this new surge of industry cooperation. The comparative situation between Atom and ARM processors is much murkier than in the old AMD days—there's no guarantee, for instance, that even a 32nm Atom would draw less power than a comparative ARM processor. Nevertheless, design firms with years of expertise invested into ARM-based processors don't want to cede a potential advantage to a rapidly growing competitor.

It'll likely be at least a year until we see shipping products that use this new 28nm technology. Whatever else happens, consumers seem virtually to come out on top as more advanced 3D and multimedia capabilities are built into increasingly powerful handheld devices.