More chip companies rush to 65-nanometer production

Xilinx Inc. released its first 65-nanometer chip this week, following a trend among semiconductor makers to keep pace with consumer demands by using more advanced production techniques.

Two requirements from users are forcing chip makers forward with their chip production methods: They want ever-smaller, multiuse devices, which means companies have to shrink their chips even as they combine more functions onto each one. And users want the products at a reasonable price, which again requires more advanced production methods.

For Xilinx, the transition to smaller feature sizes on its Virtex chips increased performance and reduced power consumption, the company said. The Virtex chips are a family of field programmable gate array components, which can be programmed to perform a specific function and are mainly used in networking gear. Most chips made today are application specific integrated circuits, which are created specifically for one device.

The nanometer measurement indicates the size of the transistors and other parts that are etched onto the chips. The more transistors, and the closer they are together, the faster the chip can perform tasks.

The U.S. chip designer joins an elite group by releasing its first 65nm chip. So far only a few companies have made the leap to using 65nm etching in mass production, including heavyweights Texas Instruments Inc. and Intel Corp.

TI began sending working samples of a 65nm wireless digital baseband processor to customers in March last year, and has already increased production of the chips to volume levels.

Intel is already using 65nm technology in two of its manufacturing facilities in the U.S., with two more coming online later this year in Ireland and Oregon. The company has also developed chips using even tinier, 45nm production processes, and is aiming for mass production at that feature size in 2007.

The companies are taking advantage of two chip technologies for the size innovations: larger silicon wafers and smaller etching techniques. With the silicon wafers, the issue is how they are made. The largest silicon wafers today are 12 inch (300mm) in diameter and can produce more than twice as many chips as the older 8-in. (200mm) wafers. A curious aspect of chip production is that silicon wafers are round and chips are square, meaning a lot of space is wasted on the edges of each wafer. They are round because they are easiest to form that way, in cylindrical tubes, and then sliced like bread into individual wafers.

The wafer size also determines the cost of a factory, because each time the industry increases the size of wafers, the entire factory and production line equipment usually has to be resized as well. And it's expensive. Building a 12-in.-chip factory today can run at around $3.6 billion, while an 8-in. plant would cost less than half that much.

Making the components on chips smaller is also tricky. Chips themselves come in many different sizes, from the size of a thumb to sizes smaller than the head of a nail. Chip firms make them smaller by shrinking the size of the transistors and gates on a chip. In recent years, some have even grumbled that current technologies are running into barriers, and that new techniques will have to be found to shrink chip feature sizes down much further.

Xilinx indicated that its 65nm chips will be made by its contract manufacturing partners, Toshiba Corp. of Japan and Taiwan's United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC).

"I'm sure we can support all of their requirements," said Alex Hinnawi, a spokesman for UMC in Taipei. The company operates two 12-in.-chip factories, one in Taiwan capable of etching chips on 26,000 wafers per month, and another in Singapore with exactly half that output.

UMC has already manufactured 65nm chips for two customers, including Xilinx, and is working with four additional customers on such products, Hinnawi said.

The company's main rival in the contract chip making business, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., has also been busy gathering orders for 65nm technology. TSMC has already delivered chips at that feature-size to customers for qualification, and listed five customers for 65nm technology on a recent news release, including Broadcom Corp., Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and Altera Corp., which are all based in the U.S.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon