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Intel puts chips on everyone’s menu

Digitisation and geopolitical tension between the US and China may be behind Pat Gelsinger’s news about building fabrication plants in the US and Europe

If industry forecasts are to be believed, there is going to be a big rise in demand for semiconductors as more and more organisations deploy computer technology at the edge.

During Intel’s global Intel unleashed: engineering the future webcast, CEO Pat Gelsinger shared his vision for IDM 2.0, a major evolution of Intel’s integrated device manufacturing (IDM) model.

He said Intel would be expanding its manufacturing capacity, beginning with about $20bn of investment to build two new fabrication plants in Arizona. Gelsinger also announced that Intel plans to become a major provider of foundry capacity in the US and Europe to serve its customers globally.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, one of the guest speakers on the webcast, discussed the growth in demand for chips, and said: “Today we enter a new era where computers are embedded in the world and there is a radical change in computer architecture. This new era requires new innovation across the entire stack. Technology needs to adapt as customer requirements change.”

Tackling fragile chip supply 

The Covid-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the fragility of global supply chains and the tech industry was not immune. There still appear to be shortages of semiconductors. “Technology has never been more important to humanity,” said Gelsinger. “The entire world is becoming digital, driven by cloud, connectivity, AI [artificial intelligence] and the intelligent edge.”

These are the new application areas for PC and server technology that Intel hopes to capitalise on. But the whole industry was caught by the shortfall of, and unexpected demand for, consumer PCs.

Canalys research director Rushabh Doshi said: “Components, such as displays, GPUs and other smaller chips that drive PC internals will face a squeeze for most of 2021 and well into 2022, leaving a significant amount of demand unfulfilled.” 

While more PCs were sold last year after declining sales annually, this welcome demand has led to a shortage of chips needed in other application areas.

According to analyst Gartner, with the pandemic shifting electronic demand towards consumer products, intensified by the launch of 5G smartphones and remote working, automotive product makers have found themselves at the bottom of the semiconductor queue.

Gelsinger added: “Digitisation accelerates the need for processors.” But he acknowledged that manufacturing is concentrated in Asia, while demand is being driven in the US and Europe. “The industry needs more geographically dispersed manufacturing,” he said.

Gelsinger hopes the investments Intel is making in semiconductor fabrication plants and foundries will secure and sustain the supply of processors.

Specialist chips

Although Intel has mainly focused on the x86 processor architecture, it is also beginning to address the gaps in its technology that require more specialised hardware.

Gelsinger said Intel would be diversifying workloads, moving from system-on-a-chip designs to packaging-on-a-chip. Here, separate functions are fabricated as tiles which are then integrated into one semiconductor package.

Among the technology innovations that Gelsinger said Intel has been working on is Foveros 3D packaging technology, which aims to optimise performance and power efficiency when stacking chips. Related technology, embedded multi-die interconnect bridge, is used to connect tiles with different specialisations together, enabling Intel to manufacture a single semiconductor device that embeds several types of chip technology.

During the event, Gelsinger showed the company’s Ponte Vecchio device, which uses 40 different tiles in a package with 100 billion transistors. Gelsinger said that when IBM created the world’s first petascale computer 13 years ago, the hardware needed filled an entire room. He claimed that the Ponte Vecchio device he held in his hand offered petascale computing.

Such hardware innovation may lead to simpler designs of high-performance desktop and notebook PCs. Ponte Vecchio is regarded as a graphics processing unit for high-performance computing, but as the technology scales down, it is likely to be considered a viable alternative to discrete graphics cards from the likes of Nvida and AMD.

Hardware and systems software providers are betting that software developers will need such technology as they build new types of applications that take advantage of AI. If Nvidia's £31bn purchase of ARM goes through, it could seriously dent Intel’s ambitions to remain the dominant processor manufacturer.

However, Intel’s differentiation will be its ability to provide several different specialisations in a single semiconductor device. These specialisations that Intel plans to build into future generations of processors will ultimately power future x86-based desktop, laptop and server systems. Systems software from the likes of Microsoft will be needed to enable software developers to make the most of the specialised functions available in these new processors.

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