Intel to start making 22nm chips for others

The company has struck a deal to make chips for field-programmable gate array firm Achronix, and has hinted that it may open its manufacturing doors to more companies in the future

Semiconductor company Achronix is to make field-programmable gate arrays in Intel's latest 22nm chip fabrication plants, in the first instance of Intel manufacturing parts for a third party using a brand new process.

On Sunday, Achronix said its Speedster22i field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) would have "significant advantages" — such as 300 percent higher performance, 50 percent less power consumption and 40 percent lower cost — over 28nm-process rivals, because of Intel's 22nm process and Achronix's FPGA technology. The Speedster22i is aimed at telecommunications, networking, industrial and consumer applications.

"Intel's manufacturing strengths and lead in process technology offers leadership cost, performance and power-efficiency benefits, giving Intel and our manufacturing customers such as Achronix an opportunity to design products with superior capabilities," said Sunit Rikhi, vice president of Intel's technology and manufacturing group, in a statement.

Prior to Sunday's announcement, Achronix was using Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) to make its semiconductors. TSMC said in April that it would skip the 22nm size and go straight from 28nm to 20nm, but only in the second half of 2012. A spokesperson for Achronix told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the company wanted to start using Intel's fab in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Intel spokesman Bill Kircos said in a blog post on Sunday that Intel had a "multi-year lead on manufacturing and process technology", both in terms of size and features such as its Hafnium-based high-k, metal gate technology for reducing current leakage.

"With Achronix, we are selectively offering access to our 22nm fabs," Kircos wrote. "For perspective, this deal would only make up a tiny amount of our overall capacity, significantly less than one percent, and is not currently viewed as financially material to Intel's earnings. But it's still an important endeavour for us that we're committed to deliver on."

Kircos then asked his readers to comment on the idea of Intel making semiconductors for other companies. "Assuming Intel (and our customers) can find alignment to benefit and profit from a relationship like this, what's your view of opening up our manufacturing doors to others? Let us know," he wrote.

Gartner research vice president Bryan Lewis commented that the Achronix deal "appears to be a vote of confidence that Intel must believe that the FPGA market is important".

However, Future Horizons analyst Malcolm Penn told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that he did not see the Achronix deal as the beginning of a new era of Intel opening up its fab capacity to others. He said the FPGA agreement made sense because "the process requirements are very similar, in that Intel's process is very dedicated to high-performance, routine structures", but most semiconductor requirements are different.

"Intel have a very high-power, high-speed process and most of the world wants low power," Penn said.