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Samsung promises four generations of new chip technology

Moore's Law ain't what it used to be, but it's not dead.

Samsung announced new chip manufacturing plans at its Samsung Foundry Forum in Silicon Valley.

Samsung announced new chip manufacturing plans at its Samsung Foundry Forum in Silicon Valley.

Samsung

Moore's Law, the drumbeat that for decades has marked progress in the chip industry, has been faltering of late. But Samsung has a few more generations of processor improvements planned, it detailed Tuesday at its Samsung Foundry Forum.

A key part of chip progress is shrinking the components called transistors -- extraordinarily tiny electronic switches that process data so we have everything from clocks on microwave ovens to artificial intelligence algorithms running in your phone. But as the scale of chip components gets closer and closer to that of individual atoms, it's been hard to keep up the pace of Moore's Law. For decades, it charted a doubling of transistors for a given chip area every two years, but it's been slowing down.

Samsung, though, is sharing some details about its future chip manufacturing plans. Specifically, it's delivering chips this year made with a long-promised technology called extreme ultraviolet lithography, and it sees a path to new manufacturing processes that will quadruple the amount of electronic circuitry onto a chip.

Chip feature sizes are measured in nanometers -- billionths of a meter. On Tuesday, Samsung said it plans a manufacturing process using 3 nanometer technology. To put that in perspective, a DNA strand is about 2 nanometers wide. So yes, we're talking about stupendously fine control over manufacturing.

That's an important part of keeping Moore's Law ticking. Smaller chips are crucial for mobile devices, like smartphones that can run better AI software and smartwatches with real processing power. And better processes are also necessary for improving bigger devices like laptops used for photo and video editing or the computer vision of self-driving cars.

"Moore's Law isn't dead," said Patrick Moorhead, analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. However, he said, it's slowed down, and the chip industry has had to work harder to deliver performance benefits with tricks like specializing processors for AI or graphics and better ways to package multiple chips together.

Intel, after whose co-founder Gordon Moore the term Moore's Law is named, has been struggling to keep its processor manufacturing advantage over rival chipmakers. But Samsung has had its own struggles here, Moorhead said. Its foundry business -- building chips for other companies -- is doing OK, he said, but not as well as that of TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.) or GlobalFoundries. One problem is that companies that need to have chips made can be leery about relying on Samsung, which can be a competitor as well as a supplier. Samsung builds its own chips, like the Exynos processors in its Galaxy S9 phone and in internet-of-things devices.

Samsung announced four destinations on its processor road map, though it didn't announce much in the way of its planned schedule for getting there.

  • This year, it'll start building chips with a 7-nanometer (7nm) process employing extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. EUV permits smaller features to be etched onto the silicon wafers that are the substrate for chip features.
  • Next, a 5nm process will shrink electronics while lowering power consumption, a key advantage for mobile devices that live on battery power.
  • A 4nm process will shrink electronics another notch and boost performance, Samsung said. It'll be the last chipmaking generation to use a transistor technology called FinFET, in which a transistor communication channel is shaped like a fin. The transistor component that controls whether current flows through that channel, called the gate, is in effect draped across the fin.
  • Last comes a 3nm process technology called gate all around, or GAA. It replaces the fin with an electrical channel that looks more like wires, and the gate surrounds it completely instead of being draped across the top.

Each new step in this development makes transistors more complex and therefore more expensive to manufacture. Samsung didn't comment on how it expects the cost per transistor to change in its future roadmap.

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