Intel changed transistor structure into 3D form on the 22-nm process to continue shrinking chips. The latest 22-nm chips have transistors placed on top of each other, giving it a 3D design, rather than next to each other, which was the case in previous manufacturing technologies.
Intel in the past has made chips for itself, but in the last two years has opened up its manufacturing facilities to make chips on a limited basis for companies like Altera, Achronix, Tabula and Netronome. Last week Intel appointed former manufacturing chief Brian Krzanich to CEO, sending a signal that it may try to monetize its factories by taking on larger chip-making contracts. Apple's name has been floated around as one of Intel's possible customers.
For Intel, the advances in manufacturing also correlate to the company's market needs. With the PC market weakening, Intel has made the release of power-efficient Atom chips for tablets and smartphones based on the newest manufacturing technologies a priority. Intel is expected to start shipping Atom chips made using the 22-nm process later this year, followed up by chips made using the 14-nm process next year.
Intel this week said upcoming 22-nanometer Atom chips based on a new architecture called Silvermont will be up to three times faster and five times more power-efficient than predecessors made using the older 32-nm process. The Atom chips include Bay Trail, which will be used in tablets later this year; Avoton for servers; and Merrifield, due next year, for smartphones. Intel is trying to catch up with ARM, whose processors are used in most smartphones and tablets today.
The process of scaling down chip sizes will require lots of ideas, many of which are taking shape in university research being funded by chip makers and semiconductor industry associations, Holt said. Some of the ideas revolve around new transistor structures and also materials to replace traditional silicon.
"Strain is one example that we did in the past, but using germanium instead of silicon is certainly a possibility that is being researched. Even more exotically, going to III-V material provide advantages," Holt said. "And then there are new devices that are being evaluated as well as different forms of integration."
The family of III-V materials includes gallium arsenide.
The U.S. government's National Science Foundation is leading an effort called "Science and Engineering behind Moore's Law" and is funding research on manufacturing, nanotechnology, multicore chips and emerging technologies like quantum computing.
Sometimes, not making immediate changes is a good idea, Holt said, pointing to Intel's 1999 transition to the copper interconnect on the 180-nm process. Intel was a late mover to copper, which Holt said was the right decision at the time.
"That equipment set wasn't mature enough at that point in time. People that moved [early] struggled mightily," Holt said, adding that Intel also made a late move to immersion lithography, which saved the company millions of U.S. dollars.
By the time Intel moved to immersion lithography the transition was smooth, while the early adopters struggled.