Intel quietly strikes 22nm deals with niche chipmakers

Intel has hinted that it has taken the unusual move of selling its 22nm process on to other chipmakers, which could open up new markets to smaller, highly specialised silicon companies

Intel is granting niche semiconductor makers access to its advanced 22nm chip manufacturing technology, a move that could yield more efficient reprogrammable chips.

Tri-gate transistor

Intel has hinted that it has taken the unusual move of selling its 22nm process — including its 3D 'tri-gate' design — on to other chipmakers. Image credit: James Martin/CNET News

Intel confirmed to ZDNet UK on Thursday that "there have been other agreements" besides its 22nm fabbing relationships with Tabula and Achronix Semiconductor. However, it declined to give more details.

Intel's 22nm 3D process based on a tri-gate, or FinFet, design, lets companies make transistors that are much more power efficient than those made to less-detailed processes. These include the manufacturing techniques used by the world's largest contract foundries, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Samsung and Global Foundries.

The process is "a generation lead versus anything anyone else can offer", Malcolm Penn, chief executive of semiconductor analysis company Future Horizons, said. By using 22nm technology, smaller companies can make chips that have a chance of getting into mobile devices, which are typically dominated by ARM-based processors.

But questions remain over why Intel would give companies access to a technology that represents an advantage in a highly competitive industry.

"We're not providing details," Intel said. "Each engagement is evaluated on its own merits."

Manufacturing agreements

Its two publicly known manufacturing agreements involve companies that make field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are not a competitive threat to Intel's mainstream x86 chips.

"Intel has worked closely with Tabula throughout the product design cycle to co-optimise Tabula's 3PLD family with Intel's 22nm manufacturing process and design kits," Sunit Rikhi, vice president of Intel's Technology and Manufacturing Group, said in a statement.

Penn agreed there is a chance Intel could be doing this so it can iron out bugs in the 22nm process before it makes its own chips. "FPGAs are good for this," he said. "It's like running loads of test wafers and getting paid for it."

The 22nm chips, such as those based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, were meant to arrive late last year. However, the date slipped and Intel is now saying they are due to start being fabbed in April and will go into major production in July.

"While we can't disclose our customers' specific plans, their products won't be available until well after [22nm] Ivy Bridge has shipped in high volume," Intel said.

Any chip made to a 22nm process will be more power efficient than equivalent chips made to a less-advanced process, Penn said. "That gets them closer to non-PC applications [and] into the high-end tablets and mobile space... watch for this to be potentially disruptive," he said.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.