Advanced Processor Chip Scaling Driven by Latest Electronics

Last month, one of the top global reverse engineering chip firms, Chipworks, verified the Core M version of Intel’s Broadwell processor, using 14nm node size logic processor semiconductor technology, implemented in its first commercial product, Lenovo’s Yoga 3 Pro laptop. Chipworks was able to remove and dissect the processor chip for cross-sectional scanning electron imaging that confirmed this node size shrink from 22nm technology, with slightly modified fins for the 3D gates that started a paradigm shift across the industry several years ago. Now all top processor chip-makers such as Samsung, Global Foundries, and TSMC utilize some form of a 3D FinFET, which boosts speed and reduces power consumption.

Intel and IBM will be presenting a review of this technology at the IEDM Conference in December, which will possibly disclose the innovative use of speculated air gap interconnect insulation in the backend dielectric stack. Intel's paper will be called “A 14nm Logic Technology Featuring 2nd-Generation FinFET Transistors, Air-Gapped Interconnects, Self-Aligned Double Patterning and a 0.0588µm2 SRAM Cell Size,” which is a mouthful.

While at Micron, which was the first company in the semiconductor industry to implement double-patterning for advanced commercial chips, I was involved in pioneering this technology that has paved the way for chip scaling, amid the continued delays in direct patterning using extreme ultraviolet photolithography (EUV). I coauthored a number of patent publications including: US 8,129,289 B2 and US 8,852,851 B2. Chipworks confirmed the SRAM cell size in the cache memory is ~0.058 µm2, as well as a 42nm transistor fin pitch, 70nm transistor gate pitch, and a 52nm interconnect pitch, which are all significant scaling reductions from Intel’s prior generation processors.

Intel has been manufacturing FinFETs in high-volume since 2011, starting with its 22nm Ivy Bridge and later Haswell processors, using a more traditional silicon scaling approach. In contrast, IBM is using higher cost silicon-on-insulator (SOI) substrates to streamline the manufacturing process, enabling lower-voltage operation and subsequently lower-power chips, which are super-critical for mobile device applications.

However, IBM has subsequently sold its chip enterprise to Global Foundries, which will be carrying the torch on this technology moving forward. FinFETs were designed to reduce current leakage in newer generation, smaller gate transistors, which do not require SOI substrates. In FinFETs, the gate wraps around the fin channel, so it is possible to deplete the channel in the off-state, reducing leakage current that can overheat and degrade the processor chips.

(Image: Courtesy of Self-Serve Advertising Platform/Online Advertising)

(Image: Courtesy of Self-Serve Advertising Platform/Online Advertising)

Beside integrated device manufacturers (IDMs), foundries across the world are shrinking chip node sizes for next-generation electronic devices. According to a recent report by IC Insights, TSMC is forecast to have the highest revenue per wafer in 2014, at $1,328, which is 27% higher than Global Foundries and 42% higher than UMC. There is a definite trend between revenue and node size in the results. The most profitable node sizes tend to fall below 28nm scale chips. The pure-play foundry sales are predicted to reach $12.3 billion in 2014, equivalent to a 72% spike from 2013. The market size for devices below the 28nm node size still represents the largest segment of the market at 71%, but it is only expected to increase 4% this year.

The growth in shrinking chip feature sizes is partly due to the expansion of the high-performance wearable electronics market, including smartwatches and smart headphones. Market research forecasts across the industry are predicting growth of nearly $60 billion for the wearable electronics market over the next decade. Since Apple has not even penetrated (or shaken up) this space yet with its iWatch, which has been delayed until the spring of 2015, it is possible that these forecasts may even be underestimates if Apple's first such product is a smash hit.

17 comments on “Advanced Processor Chip Scaling Driven by Latest Electronics

  1. bjcoppa
    November 10, 2014

    Double-patterning is semiconductor lingo for a process flow used to double the density of feature sizes on a chip from what the photolithographic steppers can print automatically for patterning. Another term of reference is pitch multiplication since it achieves a shrinkage of the lines and spaces from 50nm for example to 25nm by adding additional litho and etch steps and often using a sacrificial conformal spacer as part of a hardmask, which is discussed in my co-authored patents cited in this article.

  2. bjcoppa
    November 10, 2014

    Triple and quadruple patterning is stretching the limits of what was predicted and expected out of this process sequence noted in this article and patents cited. This technique was implemented due to initial delays in the development of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) photolithography which could allow for direct printing from 20nm down to at least 7nm. However, EUV from companies such as ASML and Canon is still not production-ready so companies like Intel and Samsung are having to find alternative methods for Moore's Law shrinkage of chip dimensions to move the industry forward. Other nanotech options are being evaluated as well in tandem but all have major challenges.

  3. bjcoppa
    November 12, 2014

    There are other photolithographic methods besides EUV being developed but are even less mature in most cases. Feel free to contact me via to discuss the technology in this article or past ones in more detail. Send me a direct message for confidential discussion from author on this topic.

  4. bjcoppa
    November 21, 2014

    Intel has combined mobile and PC processor chip business units to cover the losses due to lack of competitiveness in mobile device market such as wearables, smartphones and tablets. Even though it has been leading the industry in chip node size scaling, its overall designs have lost out to ARM whose processor chips are being produced by Samsung, Global Foundries and TSMC. Intel is essentially focusing on remaining the leader in server and PC core processor chips.

  5. chirshadblog
    November 23, 2014

    @naloging: Why do you think its less mature ? Any specific reason behind it ? 

  6. Netcrawl
    November 23, 2014

    @analoging I believe that Intel's position in the high end of the server market is safe, and in the new low power/embedded segments of the server markets Intel will have to move quickly if it is to put an ened to those threats in all but  a few niche segments. I believe that Intel has a number of critical advantages here (that will ensure market leadership).

    Intel's advantages in the market:

    1. The best process technology in the market – (22nm FinFET for the 2013 server part against the competitor's 40nm part) this allows more cores, more integration of connectivity, co-processors and etc.

    2. Vendor relationships- the credibility that Intel has built with the data center vendors is a huge asset in the ongoing battle.

    3. First to Market- they're fast when it comes to product innovation, it is unlukely that we will see the first attept from other vendors in the 2015-2016 timeframe.

  7. Netcrawl
    November 23, 2014

    @Analoging ARM designs completely dominate the tablet and smartphone processor market (no doubt) and AMD and Intel are almost comletely absent from this arena. However, there's some major advances, Intel has been making huge investment to get a foothold in this rapidly expanding mobile industry. Intel has made rapid strides in the past few years and now its efforts are bearingg fruit- the Samsung Galaxy tablets which used a dual core Intel Clovertail chip ( this is a major step for Intel in its quest for mobile supremacy).

    Samsung is the first sign that Intel is going to disrupt the entire mobile industry. I think ARM is now on serious trouble, they already feel the tremendous pressure in this battle. they are getting scared by Intel's development and current designs. The world's second largest PC company Lenovo launched its flagship phone K900 using Intel's chip, this clearly shows that Intel is still capable of giving strong competition to ARM players in both tablets and smartphones market.

  8. Netcrawl
    November 23, 2014

    @Analoging for me ARM's defense does not really make sense, ARM is claiming that its RISC architectures to be far superior than Intel's x86 platform. And that ARM's current 28nm processors outperform Intel's 22 nm Tri-Gate 3D Silvermont chips. Intel's current mobile processors are produced at 32nm node, while Qualcomm are being made at 28nm node. I believe Intel already has factories producing 22nm silicon but those things are meant for the PC and server markets.   

  9. bjcoppa
    November 24, 2014

    Good comments. ARM has developed a successful business model in designing mobile chips over the years. Since it is not weighted down by having to maintain fabs, the company has been able to get entrenched in numerous mobile devices across the industry by licensing out its designs to top IDMs and foundries. The fab side of the business in making chips has led to increased consolidation as fewer players are able to keep up with capital costs of building billion dollar manufacturing facilities for leading edge chip technology.

  10. bjcoppa
    December 17, 2014

    Check out the following site for future updates on other related advanced microelectronics tech & business topics at: now that I have moved on from this particular writing column. Have a Happy Holiday!- Brian

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    March 29, 2016

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