At its heart, Intel is fundamentally the pioneering semiconductor manufacturing and material science company. Historically, the company has been at the forefront of innovation – carefully and consistently developing new techniques such as strained silicon, gridded transistor placement, or FinFETs to successfully scale according to Moore’s Law. However, this has not been without missteps. While Intel’s 10nm process was packed with innovations in 2017, it simply could not yield in high volume and it took several iterations to reach the more successful Intel 7 node in 2021.
After 5 years, VLSI 2022 is a return to form for Intel’s logic technology development group. The Intel 4 process is a highly performance optimized technology that is focused on CPUs, in particular the Meteor Lake compute tile. This narrow scope enabled Intel to double logic library density through a combination of critical dimension scaling and design technology cooptimization while boosting performance by approximately 20% and continuing to reduce the cost per transistor. This is accomplished by holistically rearchitecting the entire stack from fins to metal layers for regularity as well as embracing new materials and carefully adopting EUV lithography to simplify the process flow, especially in the interconnect stack.
The next step is to ramp the Intel 4 process to the excellent yields necessary for high volume manufacturing of the Meteor Lake compute tile. Ultimately, this is the true test of Intel’s process technology – whether the company can make the leap from technical development in Hillsboro to economically viable manufacturing at scale across the globe. The first stop will be at Intel’s Hillsboro production, which will be followed the Leixlip fab according to the copy exact approach. Unsurprisingly, the entire industry is watching – from Intel’s suppliers to customers and competitors.
Meteor Lake as a product has a more complex journey ahead before it hits the PC client market in 2023. While the compute tile on Intel 4 is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. Meteor Lake comprises four different tiles all using different process technologies co-packaged using Intel’s Foveros 3D stacking. While this will be the closely-watched debut for Intel 4, it will also be the first high-volume product using Intel’s 3D packaging, giving the company yet another tool to continue scaling in the coming years.
Once Intel 4 is ramped to manufacturing, the LTD team will broaden the scope of the process technology by adding more modules and features to create Intel 3. This process will serve a wider array of products such as the Granite Rapids server processor and will feature prominently in Intel Foundry Services, demanding a greater degree of ease-of-use than Intel’s internal design teams. Intel 3 will be the last FinFET node before the company makes the leap to gate-all-around transistors, described as RibbonFETs – an entirely new transistor technology that should last for the next decade.