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AMD finds 'fabless' alternative

The chip company is not going fabless in the classic sense of the word: a design house without any manufacturing facilities.

Advanced Micro Devices appears to have found an alternative to going fabless.

The dramatic announcement by AMD Tuesday, which focuses on a new entity known for now as The Foundry Company, shows that there is another way to restructure that doesn't entail completely jettisoning manufacturing operations--referred to in the semiconductor industry as fabs or fabrication facilities.

"Real men have fabs." This quote attributed to former AMD CEO and Chairman Jerry Sanders has some import here. Though fabless concerns, such as Nvidia, have been held up as lean, mean chip-supplying machines that don't have the burden of funding costly manufacturing facilities, the downside is often ignored by Wall Street.

Going completely fabless separates the company from key process technologies that are needed to stay ahead. That's especially true in AMD's case, where the sole processor rival is chip behemoth Intel, which derives much of its strength by moving quickly from one chip manufacturing process to another. Going to a new manufacturing process typically results in faster, more power-efficient processors.

AMD New York facility
This artist's rendering shows what AMD expects its New York facility to look like when it opens for business about three to four years from now. AMD

Look no further than the state AMD finds itself in today. It is a generation behind Intel, which has been shipping chips based on the 45-nanometer process for almost year. AMD is currently struggling to get out its first generation of 45nm processors.

The newly created Foundry Company was described by AMD Chief Executive Dirk Meyer on Tuesday as a "brand-new and leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing company." It will be run by Doug Grose, who will relinquish his current role as AMD's senior vice president of manufacturing operations to become CEO of The Foundry Company.

Two things will happen as a result of the backing by the Abu Dhabi-based investors. First, AMD, through the joint company Advanced Technology Investment Co. (ATIC), will expand its current manufacturing facilities in Dresden, Germany, and transform this into a foundry company that also builds chips for other companies.

As part of this expansion, Dresden will bring in IBM's silicon-on-insulator (SOI) and so-called "bulk silicon" technologies. "We deepen and widen our relationship with IBM," AMD said Tuesday. "So we'll be able to take bulk and SOI together to the 22-nanometer generation and beyond." (The next generation of chips will be made on a 32-nanometer process, followed by 22-nanometer in the 2012 time frame.)

AMD Dresden facility
AMD's Fab 36 in Dresden will focus on IBM's silicon-on-insulator (SOI) and so-called "bulk silicon" technologies. AMD

Second, AMD will move forward to build manufacturing facilities at the Luther Forest Technology Campus, near the town of Malta, N.Y. "At the earliest opportunity we will break ground on upstate New York and begin work on what we believe will be the most sophisticated manufacturing facility in the United States," AMD said.

The intention is to "bring that fab online in the late 2011, 2012 time frame," AMD said. "And further cementing that upstate New York corridor as one of the leading (areas) in the world for nanotechnology." The planned facility will provide 1,400 jobs for the region, according to AMD.

AMD may also expand beyond Dresden and New York. "Once we complete the Dresden expansion and build out upstate New York--and if commercially justified--we will consider the creation of research and manufacturing facilities in Abu Dhabi," said Grose.

Hector Ruiz--the current AMD chairman--will relinquish his role as AMD's executive chairman to become chairman of The Foundry Company.