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GlobalFoundries Turns the Corner

Friday, September 29th, 2017

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By David Lammers

Claiming that GlobalFoundries “is a different company than two years ago,” executives said the foundry’s strategies are starting to pay off in emerging markets such as 5G wireless, automotive, and high-performance processors.

CEO Sanjay Jha, speaking at the GlobalFoundries Technology Conference, held in Santa Clara, Calif. recently, said that to succeed in the foundry segment requires that customers “have confidence that they are going to get their wafers at the right time and with the right quality. That has taken time, but we are there.”

CEO Sanjay Jha: “differentiated” processes are key.

Innovation is another essential requirement for success, Jha said, arguing that R&D dollars must include spending on “differentiated” approaches. Alain Mutricy, senior vice president of product development, acknowledged that only recently have customers turned to GlobalFoundries as more than just a second-source to TSMC. For the first few years, “most companies used us to keep (wafer) prices down,” he said, while noting GlobalFoundries bears some responsibility for that by not investing nearly enough, early on, in IP libraries and EDA tool development.

Founded in March 2009 as a spinout of the manufacturing arm of Advanced Micro Devices, Global Foundries’ Abu Dhabi-based owner soon acquired Singapore’s Chartered Semiconductor in January 2010, and further expanded through the July 2015 acquisition of IBM Microelectronics. It is now engaged in building what Jha said will be the largest wafer fab in China, in Chengdu, capable of processing a million wafers a year. The Chengdu fab, operated by GlobalFoundries but with investments from the local government, will begin with 180nm and 130nm products now fabbed in Singapore, and then add 22FDX IC production to meet demand from Chinese customers.

While the road to profitability has been a hard one, Len Jelinek, chief technology analyst at HIS Markit, said GlobalFoundries is now “cash flow positive,” with the flagship Malta, N.Y. fab “essentially full” at an estimated 40,000 wafer starts per month. That is a big turnaround from four years ago, he said.

Malta fab’s capacity doubling

Nathan Brookwood, longtime microprocessor watcher at Insight64, said while AMD no longer has an ownership stake in GlobalFoundries, it does have wafer supply agreements with the foundry. The fact that AMD’s Zen-based microprocessors and newest graphics chips are all made on the 14nm Finfet process at Fab 8 “means that AMD is now actually using the wafer supply it is committed to taking. That helps both companies.”

Andrea Lati, director of market research at VLSI Research, said while TSMC “is clearly a very well-run company that is marching ahead,” GlobalFoundries also is making progress. Again, AMD’s success is a large part of that, Lati said, noting that “AMD is definitely doing very well for the last couple of years, and has good prospects, along with Nvidia, in the graphics side.”

In a telephone interview, Tom Caulfield, senior vice president and general manager of the GlobalFoundries’ Malta fab, said “we are continually adding capacity in 14nm as we get a window on to the demand from our customers. In 2016 and 2017 we made additional investments.”

While not putting a specific number on Malta’s capacity, Caulfield said that if the beginning of 2016 is taken as a baseline, by the end of 2018 the wafer capacity at Malta’s Fab 8 will have more than doubled.

“AMD refreshed its entire portfolio with 14nm, exclusively made here at Malta, and we are chasing more demand than we planned on. AMD’s success is a proxy for our success. We are in this hand in hand,” Caulfield said.

Asked if a new fab was being considered at Malta, Caulfield said “At some point we will need more brick and mortar. Eventually we will run out of space, but we still have some time in front of us.

FDX in the wings

Scotten Jones, who runs a semiconductor cost modeling consultancy, IC Knowledge LLC, said competition is also heating up at the 28nm node, once controlled almost exclusively by TSMC. As GlobalFoundries, Samsung — and more recently, SMIC and UMC — have ironed out their own 28nm processes, the profitability of TSMC’s 28nm business has tightened, Jones said.

The competitive spotlight is now on the 22FDX SOI-based process developed by GlobalFoundries, buttressed by an embedded 22nm eMRAM capability developed along with MRAM pioneer Everspin Technologies.

Gary Patton, chief technology officer at GlobalFoundries, said the SOI-based 22nm node supports forward biasing, while the 12nm FDX technology will support both forward and back-biasing, to either boost performance or conserve power. Patton said the 12FDX process will provide 26 percent more performance and 47 percent less power consumption than the 22FDX process, with prototypes expected in the second half of 2018 and volume production beginning in 2019.

CTO Gary Patton: Technology development boosted by IBM engineers.

Patton said “maybe we haven’t done enough” to explain the differences between the 14nm FinFet technology and the SOI-based FDX technologies. The FinFET transistors have enough drive current to drive signals across fairly large die sizes, while the FDX technology is best suited to die sizes of 150 sq. mm and smaller, he said.

Jones said his cost analysis shows that the design costs for the planar FDX chips are much less expensive than for FinFETs, which require “some fairly expensive EDA tools.” That combines with a much smaller mask count, due to multi-patterning.

Patton said the 22FDX designs require 40 percent fewer masks that comparable 14nm FinFET-based designs. “With the SOI technology customers have the option of using body biasing, which has been used in the industry for the past three or four years. We can operate at .4 Volts, and customers are putting RF on the same chip as digital.”

Asked if he thought the FDX processes would gain traction in the marketplace, Jones answered in the affirmative. “I think it will find its place. It is still early. These kinds of new technologies take time to get established,” Jones said.

Jha said two companies have developed products based on 22FDX, Dream Chip Technologies, an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) supplier, which last February said it has completed a computer vision SoC based on the 22FDX process, and Ineda Systems, which seeks to integrate RF and digital capabilities on its 22FDX-based processors, targeted at the Internet of Things market.

Mutricy said 70 companies purchased the 22FDX foundation IP provided by Invecas for the 22FDX process, with 18 tapeouts on track for production next year.

Patton said the addition of 500 technologists from IBM’s microelectronics division has aided the technology development operation. “GlobalFoundries is absolutely a different company than it was just two years ago,” Patton said at the GTC event.