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Intel 7nm In Trouble
Quote:Intel announced today in its Q2 2020 earnings release that it has now delayed the rollout of its 7nm CPUs by six months relative to its previously-planned release date, undoubtedly resulting in wide-ranging delays to the company's roadmaps. Intel's press release also says that yields for its 7nm process are now twelve months behind the company's internal targets, meaning the company isn't currently on track to produce its 7nm process in an economically viable way. The company now says its 7nm CPUs will not debut on the market until late 2022 or early 2023.
On the earnings call, Intel CEO Bob Swan said the company had identified a "defect mode" in its 7nm process that caused yield degradation issues. As a result, Intel has invested in "contingency plans," which Swan later defined as including using third-party foundries. The company will also use external third-party foundries for its forthcoming 7nm Ponte Vecchio GPUs, the company's first graphics chips. Ponte Vecchio comes as a chiplet-based design, and Swan clarified that production for some of the chiplets (tiles) will be outsourced to third parties. Swan noted the GPUs will come in late 2021 or early 2022, portending a delay beyond the original schedule for a 2021 launch in the exascale Aurora supercomputer.
For perspective, rival foundry TSMC plans to be on the 3nm node in the same time frame as Intel's new schedule for 7nm. Intel clearly isn't pleased with its execution on the 7nm node, as an embattled Swan remarked that "And we feel pretty good about where we are, though we’re not happy. I’m not pleased with our 7nm process performance" at the end of the call after a bruising question and answer session with analysts. Swan also said "we have root-caused the [7nm] issue and believe there are no fundamental roadblocks," and that the company would provide further updates at an upcoming Architecture Day.

Swan said the company had a built-in buffer in its roadmap to account for process node delays. That accomodation comes as a result of hard-learned lessons from the company's incessant 10nm delays. Intel says it will use its advanced packaging technologies, which allow it to mix and match components produced from external sources with its own chips, to help reconcile the six month delay to its 7nm processors with the year-long delay to its internal 7nm yield projections. In the past, Intel stated that it would also enable newer architectures to be portable to older nodes, so it's plausible that Intel could resort to back-porting some architectures as part of its contingency plan.

The 7nm delay reflects yet another setback as Intel still struggles to overcome the multi-year yield issues it has encountered with its 10nm process. Those delays have allowed its competitors, like AMD, to wrest the process node leadership position from Intel for the first time in the company's history. That's triggered a price war in the market as Intel fights a true x86 competitor with a better node, not to mention Amazon's new Graviton 2 ARM chips based on TSMC's 7nm node. Apple also recently announced that it is transitioning from Intel's chips to its own ARM-based 7nm silicon. The 7nm delay also exacerbates the recent news that rock star chip architect Jim Keller, who was a key part of a team effort to revitalize the company's roadmaps, has left the company.
Today Intel said that it plans to increase its shipments of 10nm chips by 20% over its prior projections, so it appears the company's 10nm plans have shifted out of necessity. Intel's new plan centers on gaining another 'full node' of performance from its current 10nm node, meaning 10nm may have longer legs than the company expected when it announced last year that it would accelerate 7nm production. Intel pulled off a similar feat with its 14nm processors through a series of "+" revisions that added incremental performance improvements, so it does have a track record of successful inter-node improvements that could help it remain competitive until it can correct the issues with its 7nm process.

Intel has also traditionally used third-party fabs, currently to the tune of ~20% of its production, for low-margin, non-CPU products built on trailing-edge nodes. Intel's new plans to more aggressively leverage external fabs could result in it using other fabs for its core logic, like CPUs and GPUs, which the company hasn't done in the past. As Swan noted, that will present challenges in maintaining attractive ASPs for Intel's products, especially given the scale of its production needs. Ultimately, Intel could also face significantly reduced margins if it outsources significant portions of its fabrication of high-margin products, like CPUs, to third parties. Relying upon an outside vendor for leading-edge node production also incurs more risk in terms of supply assurance as Intel could be forced to compete with deep-pocketed rival semiconductor companies, like Apple, Nvidia and AMD, among others, for production capacity.
Quote:This time, Intel’s entire approach to the topic was different. Instead of reassuring investors that the products built at third-party foundries would be low-cost hardware, Intel openly acknowledged that it would use whatever technology stack was required to deliver performance leadership, be that fully internal manufacturing, fully external, or a combination of the two. CEO Bob Swan emphasized that this plan is part of Intel’s commitment to flexibility and argued that its willingness to develop what he called contingency plans is a sign that the company is determined to deliver maximum value to both investors and customers.

I don’t disagree. At this point, given the challenges Intel has faced with its own manufacturing, the company would be foolish and potentially negligent if it failed to explore every option. That doesn’t change the fact that six years ago, Intel declared its process node leadership would continue on 14nm and into the future, while in 2020, the company CEO spoke of protecting the company’s roadmaps and products from its own process node problems. “We have learned from the challenges in our 10-nanometer transition,” Bob Swan said, “And have a milestone-driven approach to ensure our product competitiveness is not impacted by our process technology roadmap.”
I think what Intel did today was put a very smooth face on a radical corporate realignment. If I might be permitted a bit of poetic license and a Deus Ex: Human Revolution quote: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

Based on Swan’s own remarks and timelines, Chipzilla has 24-36 months to demonstrate why it should still own its own fabs. By late 2022 / early 2023, TSMC should be shipping 3nm. Even if we assume that Intel’s 7nm is good enough to compare directly to TSMC’s 5nm, that still puts the Taiwanese company a full node ahead.

Is this the end of Intel? Not by half. Intel’s financials are great, the company is tremendously profitable, its data center business continues to grow, and its cash flow is healthy. AMD was in far more trouble after Bulldozer bombed in 2011 than Intel is now, even facing further delays and the question of whether it will remain an IDM over the long term. The company’s process engineers may be struggling, but its CPU design teams are still excellent.

But having a great CPU design team is a necessary but insufficient component of holding the leadership position in CPUs that Intel has long commanded. The company is capable of mounting aggressive comebacks, but if Intel wants investors to see its foundry facilities as a necessary part of the business rather than a drag on its profits, it’s time to pull out all the stops and fix its factories. No, Bob Swan didn’t say that explicitly, today.

He didn’t have to.
Quote:It appears that Intel's technical challenges with its 7nm process will be complicated by legal challenges as well. The Hagens Berman law firm issued a press release on Friday calling for investors impacted by Intel's recent stock market losses to join a potential class-action lawsuit for investors fraud. The firm also "encourages persons who may be able to assist the Firm's investigation of possible securities fraud to contact the firm."
It certainly isn't uncommon to see lawyers circle as investors look to recoup at least some of their losses after drastic plunges in stock valuations, but the firm also solicits whistleblowers that can help prove that Intel knowingly misled investors: "Persons with non-public information regarding Intel should consider their options to help in the investigation or take advantage of the SEC Whistleblower program. Under the new program, whistleblowers who provide original information may receive rewards totaling up to 30 percent of any successful recovery made by the SEC."
Quote:There’s a new report out of China claiming that Intel and AMD are now fighting over TSMC’s 7nm capacity that implies a slugging match between the three companies that may actually be more of a happy mutual coincidence.
Reportedly AMD will contract for 200,000 wafers over the whole of next year, making it TSMC’s largest customer on 7nm. The wafer order numbers are speculations by the China Times, not factual reports of order size from TSMC. And while the article says the two companies are fighting, it also emphasizes that the cancellation of Huawei’s orders left a giant hole in TSMC’s capacity the company very much wants to fill.
Quote:Intel has a remarkable habit of making tons of money when it’s in trouble, technologically speaking. Prescott was both the worst CPU Intel ever shipped and a revenue record-breaker when it was new, and Intel’s overall data center and CPU sales have been doing very well the past few quarters. Part of that boost is from COVID-19, but the company was enjoying robust demand even before the pandemic hit. Those of you hoping that 2023 will dawn on a broken Intel, begging for financial relief from the likes of AMD or TSMC had best temper those expectations. Intel will continue to do well for a number of reasons, including continued excellence in specific markets/workloads, familiarity, inertia, multi-year purchase agreements, and being the platform of choice for a lot of software in circumstances where customers buy what their applications officially support, Intel is going to continue to hold on to large segments of workstation, desktop, and server markets.

If this was 2012, the article might end right there. With no ARM or x86 competitors on the horizon, Intel could ride out the next 3-5 years, fix its process nodes and its CPUs, and get back in the saddle without ever facing a serious competitor. But this isn’t 2012, and Intel is facing threats across the spectrum. Its rival x86 manufacturer, AMD, is making a serious play for overall market leadership. At the same time, Intel faces not just one ARM-based competitor, but a number of them: Qualcomm and Apple in laptops and Amazon, Ampere, Nuvia, and all other Neoverse-based products in servers. All we need at this point is for Western Digital to announce a new RISC V-based high-performance processor.

It’s not the near-term risks in 2021 – 2022 that should be keeping Intel investors up at night. It’s the question of how this situation evolves in 2024, 2025, and beyond. At this point, there is little reason to believe that Intel is going to have 7nm ready to ship six months after its original target. Backporting 10nm features into Rocket Lake’s 14nm will buy Intel some time, but the company obviously can’t keep designing chips for the same node forever.

All of these delays are virtually certain to pile into each other, because there are some critical technology introduction windows that have to happen at node transition boundaries. EUV has to go in. Once installed, continuing to scale downwards will require either high-NA EUV devices or the adoption of multi-patterning. Either way, these aren’t fire-and-forget technologies for Intel — they’re technologies that have to be installed and then scale downwards while improving yield as well.

It’d be stupid to count Intel out altogether, given the company’s history and long track record of proven performance — but it’d be just as stupid to pretend everything is going well at the silicon giant. I stand by my estimates from last week — Intel has 2-3 years to demonstrate a fundamental turnaround, or investors are going to start raising serious questions about its future as an IDM.
Quote:Although there are reports of Intel placing orders at TSMC to fabricate their chips, a DigiTimes report today points to the partnership a temporary one. According to unnamed sources, TSMC doesn't consider Intel a long-term customer and is, therefore, unlikely to build additional fabrication capacity to meet the contracts.
However, TSMC isn't desperate for additional customers, and even prior to the news of delays in Intel's 7nm process, the foundry wasn't concerned about filling up the freed up capacity.

TSMC reportedly won't be creating additional capacity to meet Intel's needs, which could mean the continuation of Intel shortages continue for quite some time. Intel expects its manufacturing processes to be back on track by around 2023.

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