Today, fabless semiconductor supplier MediaTek and Intel Foundry Services (IFS) announced a strategic partnership. MediaTek designs and markets systems-on-chips (SoCs) for smartphones and other mobile devices, home entertainment systems, and IoT products. Intel and MediaTek have been working together for at least a few years. Back in late 2019, Intel and MediaTek announced a collaboration to bring 5G modems into ‘always connected’ PCs and laptops. For MediaTek, IFS represents a way to diversify its semiconductor supply chain, to bolster it and make it more resilient in a world where supply chain challenges abound, thanks to the COVID pandemic, trade tensions, war, and civil upheaval.
For IFS, the announcement of a major application-specific IC (ASIC) supplier like MediaTek as a foundry partner and customer adds considerable weight to Intel’s fledgling semiconductor foundry business. MediaTek will be using the Intel 16 process node for its initial chips. Intel 16 is an enhanced version of the process node that Intel previously called 22FFL. Intel’s was the first commercial semiconductor process to use FinFETs when the company announced its 22nm node in 2011. Since its launch in early 2021, IFS has continued to make improvements to the initial 22FFL process, resulting in better performance, lower power, and smaller area (PPA), which are the key figures of merit when companies evaluate semiconductor foundries. Intel and IFS have also added new features to the Intel 16 semiconductor process node including RF capabilities.
According to IFS, Intel 16 will be ready for customer tapeouts later this year, with a planned volume-production ramp in early 2023. IFS says it will make the more advanced Intel 3 and Intel 18A process nodes available to customers later. Current plans are for the Intel 3 process node to be ready in 2H 2023, followed by Intel 18A in 2H 2024. The rapid cadence of new process nodes underscores Intel’s desire to continue pushing Moore’s Law along. Intel discussed the upcoming Intel 3 process node briefly at the 2022 IEEE Symposium on VLSI Technology & Circuits held last month, during a presentation about the progress made on the Intel 4 process node, the predecessor to Intel 3.
Depending on your viewpoint, the Intel 4 process node either revives or sustains Moore’s Law by increasing transistor density by a factor of two relative to the company’s Intel 7 process node, which Intel had previously referred to as “10nm Enhanced SuperFin.” In addition to the increase in transistor density, Intel 4 delivers a 20% performance gain relative to Intel 7, while running at the same power-consumption levels. However, IFS will not be offering Intel 4 to its foundry customers. It will be offering the follow-on process node, Intel 3, which will increase the number of EUV lithography steps and have a denser high-performance cell library developed specifically for Intel 3. These improvements should further boost transistor density beyond the doubling achieved with Intel 4 relative to Intel 7.
Although MediaTek says that it initially plans to use IFS to manufacture multiple chips for smart edge devices, the company also asserts that its smartphone chips power nearly one of every three mobile phones currently sold. MediaTek has been Arm’s lead partner for mobile designs and its Dimensity 9000 5G chipset, which is based on the Arm v9 platform, is manufactured in TSMC’s N4 (4nm-class) process technology. The potential for snagging some of MediaTek’s smartphone chip business with its future, more advanced process nodes like Intel 3 and Intel 18A must certainly be an attractive prospect for IFS. Based on today’s strategic partnership announcement, one would guess that MediaTek is at least considering such a move.
But process technology alone does not make a semiconductor foundry. Part of the transition from an internal, proprietary Intel process node to an IFS semiconductor platform involves the integration of 3rd-party EDA tools and a comprehensive IP ecosystem. Both are required for IFS customers to develop designs with the Intel 16 and follow-on process nodes. IFS launched the IFS Cloud Alliance in June with leading cloud providers Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, and the big three EDA players: Cadence, Siemens EDA, and Synopsys. The announcement with MediaTek underscores the maturing nature of 3rd-party tools and IP for IFS semiconductor process nodes.
Tirias Research believes that this announcement by IFS and MediaTek is yet one more indicator that Intel and IFS are fully committed to the semiconductor foundry business. Meanwhile, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger continues to lobby for the passage of the US CHIPS Act to further Intel’s ambitious plans to build new, more advanced semiconductor fabs around the world. (See “Intel’s CEO And The SIA To Congress: Pass The US CHIPS Act!”)