TSMC to make Atoms for Intel

TSMC will be the first foundry licensed by Intel to make x86 processors. The companies have signed a memorandum of understanding, to be followed by a more detailed contract, that will see Intel port the Atom processor core to a TSMC manufacturing processes.

Insisting that the deal is not about securing additional capacity but attracting a wider range of customers to the Atom processor, executive vice president of sales Sean Maloney said: “Intel is a manufacturing company. During the course of the past 16 years, when people questioned whether we should invest in manufacturing, the answer was yes. It is a central core competency.

“So, why port a core to TSMC? Our belief is that as we look at the next three or four years, [customers] will need to embed PC functionality into these devices,” Maloney added, indicating the growing market for portable and embedded electronics. “We also want to go after markets where we are absent.”

Anand Chandrashekar, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s ultra mobility group, confirmed the company will not pass its manufacturing technology – Atom was originally designed for the company’s 45nm high-k, metal-gate process – to TSMC. “We are porting Atom, some of them, to TSMC’s process libraries using their libraries and their flows,” he said, adding that many of Intel’s customers already use TSMC for their own chips. By porting Atom to a TSMC process, they would be able to incorporate the core into a new generation of system-on-chip (SoC) devices.

Maloney stressed that Intel will retain control over access to the TSMC version of the Atom core. “We will maintain full control of who we sell to,” he said. “We have markets in our mind that we are going after.”

The companies did not disclose which TSMC process Intel engineers had selected for the first port. Atom was designed for the Intel 45nm high-k metal-gate process – and the number-one chipmaker described a variant for system-on-chip (SoC) designs at last year's IEDM. However, on the foundry's current schedule, TSMC’s first high-k, metal-gate process, built for the 28nm node, will not be ready until next year.

TSMC has run prototype wafers on a 32nm high-k process and was slated to talk about that at IEDM in December but is focusing on 28nm. In the current 45nm family of processes, TSMC is working with a polysilicon gate.

Maloney claimed that there is “a sense of urgency” at the two companies in getting the port done but also that they favour leading-edge processes.

“The very first products are currently in definition. But we are not talking about that today,” Maloney added.

Rick Tsai, president and CEO of TSMC, claimed that the foundry has been making devices for Intel over the past 20 years, with the latest focused on communications technologies such as Wimax.

“Today marks a milestone in the semiconductor industry...this is a long-term strategy with mutual benefit,” Tsai added, arguing that the chipmakers need to pursue more collaborations. “I want to stress that this is a very difficult time for everybody in the industry. It is even more important now to form long-term relationships. People in the industry must work together more.”

Monday’s deal is not the first of its kind to be cut by Intel. In July 1992, Intel took a 20 per cent stake in VLSI Technology and provided the ASIC supplier, which also sold ARM processors to Apple for use in the Newton personal digital assistant (PDA), a licence to make chips around the 386SL processor. Compaq was to have been one of the first customers for the Polar product but, with enthusiasm waning for handhelds by the middle of 1994 as Newton sales floundered, Intel and VLSI killed off the project later that year.

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