GlobalFoundries has announced it has halted all 7nm development. The American firm is one of the two largest semiconductor foundries in the world (alongside TSMC) but has confirmed it will be stopping all cutting-edge technologies due to the prohibitive costs involved.
GlobalFoundries was ready to tape out its first 7nm products in Q4 2018 but has performed an about turn as part of a strategic rethink of where the company is heading.
As ever, it all comes down to money. GlobalFoundries has spent billions getting 7LP fabrication up and running, with yet more cash required to perfect 7nm EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet) lithography and keep pace with TSMC.
With each process node shrink costing billions of dollars and the cost of manufacturing skyrocketing, prices would have to increase, leaving GlobalFoundries uncompetitive. Instead, GlobalFoundries is cutting its losses and leaving the bleeding edge market. This allows the tech giant to reduce spending on R&D and allow it to use the fabrication plants its got rather than splashing out on new equipment and plants.
For GlobalFoundries it represents the classic chicken and the egg scenario. They haven’t got the facilities for large-scale 7nm production and they can’t justify the expenditure without the demand in the place. The number of chips that would need to be produced to cover the costs is vast, and GF's argument is demand would too quickly turn to the 5nm process to make it worthwhile. In terms of costs, we're talking in the ballpark of triple-figure billions, so you can begin to see why GF would want to cut its losses and run for the hills.
Looking ahead, this means that GlobalFoundries has also halted all development and research of future 5nm and 3nm process nodes. The R&D budget has effectively been completely slashed at GlobalFoundries with the decision taken to focus on manufacturing established process technologies such as 14nm fabrication.
In terms of future products, this could have massive ramifications. With one of the biggest players in the industry now happy to sit on older tech, TSMC and Samsung now effectively hold a duopoly. In the short to mid-term, this may result in some hefty price increases for CPUs and GPUs looking to use 7nm tech.
GlobalFoundries is realigning its leading-edge FinFET roadmap to serve the next wave of clients that will adopt the technology in the coming years,” writes GlobalFoundries in a press release. “The company will shift development resources to make its 14/12nm FinFET platform more relevant to these clients, delivering a range of innovative IP and features including RF, embedded memory, low power and more. To support this transition, GF is putting its 7nm FinFET program on hold indefinitely and restructuring its research and development teams to support its enhanced portfolio initiatives. This will require a workforce reduction, however a significant number of top technologists will be redeployed on 14/12nm FinFET derivatives and other differentiated offerings.”
The ripple effect of this change is that work on the 7nm fabrication process has ceased and any potential clients will have to seek their chips from elsewhere. AMD did have plans to use GlobalFoundries silicon but within hours of this announcement has since confirmed it's moving its entire business over to TSMC.
AMD already announced earlier this year that it’s moving all 7nm GPU production over to TSMC, effectively hammering yet another nail into GF’s coffin. On top of this, AMD this week announced that all 7nm CPU production will now also be handled by TSMC.
“To streamline our development and align our investments closely with each of our foundry partner’s investments, today we are announcing we intend to focus the breadth of our 7nm product portfolio on TSMC’s industry-leading 7nm process,” said AMD’s Mark Papermaster in a blog post. “We also continue to have a broad partnership with GLOBALFOUNDRIES spanning multiple process nodes and technologies. We will leverage the additional investments GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ is making in their robust 14nm and 12nm technologies at their New York fab to support the ongoing ramp of our AMD Ryzen, AMD Radeon, and AMD EPYC processors.” And, crucially, Papermaster confirms “We do not expect any changes to our product roadmaps as a result of these changes.”
For AMD, this puts them in a position of immense strength. With 7nm designs inbound for both its GPU and CPU markets, AMD is firmly beating Intel and Nvidia to the punch. Multiple 7nm products have already been taped out at TSMC and AMD plans to launch its first 7nm GPU later this year. It’s also got 2nd Gen Zen CPUs and the new Navi GPU architecture right around the corner.
AMD's product roadmap is firmly on track then, although the same cannot be said for Intel. Earlier this month, Intel announced 10nm Ice Lake had been delayed yet again and will now not be ready until at least 2020.
What are your thoughts on this situation, could TSMC's stranglehold on 7nm fabrication prove damaging for consumers? What does this mean for future process shrinks, are we hitting a silicon ceiling? Let us know your thoughts below!