The panorama: Intel has ambitions to create a foundry business by making chips for other companies. This is an important strategic initiative that the company will need to recoup the massive investment it is now making in factories around the world.
Most analysts agree that this proposal is not viable until Intel can catch up with its manufacturing process. And rightfully so, without it, Intel Foundry Services (IFS) would lack serious competitive differentiation (yes, pack, but that’s not enough). And we’ve also come to realize that the company lacks customer service muscle after a history of the Fabs team running the show.
guest author jonathan goldberg is the founder of D2D Advisory, a cross-functional consulting firm. Jonathan has developed growth strategies and partnerships for companies in the mobile, networking, gaming, and software industries.
But beyond that, there are even more concerns.
When we talk about semi manufacturing, we tend to treat the various foundry nodes as expendable, as if a customer could easily trade Samsung for Intel for TSMC. This is not exact. Actually, each factory has a different way of manufacturing. Intel’s process was designed to make CPUs, and those processes are not the same as those needed for other types of chips. For example, mixed-signal chips that need to process digital versions of analog signals (such as cell phone signals) while also performing pure digital logic require a very different set of manufacturing steps: different machines, calibrated in different ways. different, in a different order. To put it politely, Intel doesn’t have a great track record of producing its own mixed-signal parts.
And then there are the tools. An important part of the foundry customer experience is the software tools used to handle communications between the non-factory customer and the foundry. This isn’t as simple as emailing a couple of files. All major foundries have invested heavily in integrating the tools they use to manage production with the software tools used by their customers.
This is a big part of the competitive dominance that EDA vendors like Cadence and Synopsys wield over the industry. To be clear, Intel has its own set of tools to handle the production of its own chips, but to a surprising degree these are owned by Intel. From what we hear, even Intel employees don’t love the experience. Will IFS expect clients to learn these tools? Most likely, Intel will need to invest heavily in software to create a new set of tools that customers are comfortable with.
All of this begs the question, if Intel can get its manufacturing back on track (a big if), which customer will want to switch to Intel? Even if Intel can get through TSMC’s process by 2025 as they claim (or is it 2026?), it will take a significant period of time (measured in years) for non-factory customers before they feel comfortable submitting actual production orders to IFS. .
The industry is plagued by horror stories about companies getting stranded because their foundry process doesn’t go as planned.
It is important to note that any time a company sends a chip to the foundry for production, that company is taking a risk. There’s a reason they’re called “Risk Starts.” For established foundries, that risk is measured in terms of yield, the percentage of chips produced on each wafer. But for a new process, let alone a new foundry, there is a real risk that the process will not work. The industry is plagued by horror stories about companies getting stranded because their foundry process doesn’t go as planned.
Given all of this, it seems highly unlikely that any of the major chip companies would be in a rush to sign up for IFS. Would Apple risk the iPhone cycle failing because its foundry wasn’t ready? Just going from TSMC 5nm to TSMC 3nm is scary enough. If Intel can fix its process (again, a big yes), big customers will definitely take a serious look at IFS, but that serious look will take years of meetings and a great deal of diligence.
That said, there is one group of customers who might be very interested in rolling the dice on IFS: RISC V chip designers. Today, these companies don’t have many good options. They can get access to TSMC, but they are usually very small and so don’t get “A Team” service or pricing.
RISC V chips also have the advantage of being a fairly new opportunity, they’re so new that no one has much experience fine-tuning the foundry processes to make them. Remember back in February when Intel announced that they were making big investments RISC V? at the time we notice it that Intel was not going to switch their CPUs from x86 to RISC V, but they were interested in the broader ecosystem.
The investment they talked about was largely focused on creating the tools and processes needed to attract nonfactory RISC V designers. It’s worth noting that Intel’s RISC V team appears to be largely inside the IFS organization.
This is not a bad strategy. Under normal circumstances, we’d be praising Intel’s wisdom. RISC V companies could easily be a springboard for IFS, a pretty captive bunch of companies.
Guinea pigs clients about whom they can experiment Honor your customer service capabilities. The bad thing is that all this is still a long way off. We recently told a friend that we didn’t expect to see IFS actually operational until 2030, and he replied, “Oh, so you’re optimistic.”
Intel is on the right track, it’s just a very long way.
Publisher’s note: Shortly after this column was written, Intel Foundry Services President Randhir Thakur he told the EE Times that the US Department of Defense is IFS’s “Number 1 customer” as part of the Department of Defense’s SHIP program. There may be some obvious political implications in choosing Intel, but that still means Intel has yet to run and prove itself as a foundry taking on customer projects.