Intel, And Others, Inside

Why the company’s foundry push is starting to win converts.


Intel this week made a strong case for how it will regain global process technology leadership, unfurling an aggressive technology and business roadmap that includes everything from several more process node shrinks that ultimately could scale into the single-digit angstrom range to a broad shift in how it approaches the market. Both will be essential for processing the huge amount of data for AI everywhere, and to win back some of the market share that NVIDIA currently wields.

Intel’s strategy is many layers thick. It includes a long list of innovations, including backside power delivery, which significantly reduces congestion and noise in more than a dozen metal layers, to 2.5D and 3D-ICs using a standard architecture for internally developed and third-party chiplets and IP. And it encompasses everything from a broad and open ecosystem — a sharp departure from its past own-it-all strategy, which once prompted anti-competitive charges — as well as a willingness to work more closely with customers, competitors, and governments to achieve its goals.

Whether Intel delivers on that promise remains to be seen. But the breadth of its vision, particularly for Intel Foundry, and the ambitious delivery schedule represent a sharp change in direction and culture for the 56-year-old chipmaker.

Of particular note is how the company’s internal silos are being deconstructed. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said there will be a clean line between Intel products and Intel Foundry, but noted the foundry will offer Intel developments and innovations developed by the product teams. “The à la carte menu is wide open for the industry,” he said during a Q&A session. “Clearwater Forest, which I showed today, is a construct that was innovated by my Xeon team — how to do hybrid bonding, Intel three base dies, 18A top die, being able to solve a lot of the CoWoS/Foveros problems using EMIB and hybrid bonding. That will become a set of collaterals that will benefit the foundry. They’re going to sell that constructional opportunity as a better way to build AI chips. So clearly, I’m taking product group intellectual property and leveraging it on the foundry side.”

This may sound like business as usual for a foundry, but Intel for years waffled over its commitment to a foundry model. In fact, it was viewed as an IDM that only began selling wafers to customers as the cost of maintaining its own fab began to skyrocket out of country. Creating separation between the two is a fundamental shift, and it’s an essential one for building trust in a complex world of sometimes partners, sometimes competitors. In the past, the company closely guarded its IP, confining that to its own processors rather than unbundling it and selling it to potential competitors. With this new division, Intel potentially can generate profits both from customized chips that leverage technologies it develops internally for other applications, as well as its own chip business.

Gelsinger is adamant about this being a leading-edge technology company, not a supplier of all components required in systems. “I’m not going to solve 200mm supply chain issues,” he said. “And, by the way, there are not going to be more 200mm factories built, for the most part, outside of specialties like SiC. There are some crazy discussions, like when some Europeans say, ‘I don’t need a leading-edge factory in Europe. Give me a 40nm node.’ What a stupid statement. It takes 5 years to build a new 40nm node, which is already 20 years old, and to make it economically viable, we’re going to have to run it 30 more years. Move the designs to more modern nodes as opposed to expecting to build old factories that are already out of date.”

Put in perspective, Intel is basically taking the Apple approach to chipmaking. How it fares against the other two leading-edge foundries isn’t clear at this point. Until 22nm, which was 16/14nm for Samsung and TSMC, Intel was the front runner in process technology. Several nodes later, it was trailing both Samsung and TSMC. The company is on a mission to regain its leadership.

“Great industries have two or three strong players,” said Gelsinger. “TSMC is a great company, and we’re going to build a great foundry, as well. And we’re going to challenge each other to further greatness. They are the best company in terms of customer support, bar none, in the industry, and they do not have a legacy of leadership technologies. They implement technologies with great customer support. We have a deep legacy of leadership technologies across domains that we created…At our innovation conference in September, I showed three companies participating in chiplet standardization — Synopsys, Intel, and TSMC — with our test chips. The world wants chiplets across a range of suppliers. I think we’ll be doing some of that. I think they’re going to be doing some of that. And I want to make sure that our mutual customers have great choice and technology benefits.”

If successful, Intel Foundry may not be the lowest-cost chipmaker, as TSMC founder Morris Chang has intimated. But if it can win back some key customers, and attract a lot of new ones with better performance, higher energy efficiency, and more customization options, that may not matter. What does matter is execution on the roadmap, and the number of companies rallying around Intel appears to indicate that significant changes are afoot — and that the competitive landscape could be a lot more fluid than it was several years ago.


Chris G says:

Intel announced they have a partnership with UMC and will be offering 12nm technology in Y2027.

This doesn’t seem to be consistent with what Pat G said about the focus on leading edge technology.

Nathaniel says:

“Focus” doesn’t mean doing nothing else. All the leading foundries offer both cutting edge and mature technologies. It would be financial suicide to ONLY offer the newest couple technology nodes.

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)