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National making first Cyrix chips

Able to use the most advanced production process, Cyrix also no longer has to rely on outside manufacturers.

The first Cyrix-brand microprocessors have started to roll out of plants owned by parent company National Semiconductor, signaling a shift in manufacturing operations that could lead to faster, better chip designs and more competition for Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, Cyrix's chief rivals.

The significance of the announcement lies in the complex relationship between chip design and fabrication facilities, explained Robert Maher, vice president of engineering at Cyrix. The Richardson, Texas-based chip vendor has been a "fabless" processor maker for most of its history, which means that it uses outside companies to manufacture its chips, such as IBM, which currently produces most of Cyrix's processors.

While this has spared Cyrix from being forced to make billion dollar-plus investments for chip fabrication facilities, it has also meant that the company has had to rely on generic design conventions that can be handled by the variety of outside chip manufacturers, putting it at a disadvantage when going up against Intel and AMD.

As a result of the successful completion of its merger with National, Cyrix can now fine tune its chip designs--as Intel and AMD do--with an eye toward utilizing National's manufacturing abilities. In turn, this could result in more processors per wafer and higher yields, Maher said.

In the near term, the shift could also result in a steadier supply of Cyrix chips because of the tighter relationship between the two companies. "We can build parts more quickly and get into higher volumes," Maher explained. National, in fact, stated that it has capacity to manufacture 10 million units for Cyrix in 1998.

National said it is currently manufacturing Cyrix 6x86 processors on the most advanced "0.25" micron process out of its pilot manufacturing plant in Santa Clara, California. Volume production of the chip is expected to begin in the summer at National's plant in Portland, Maine. The 0.25 designation refers to the width of the circuits on a microprocessor: The smaller the process, the faster the chip. Currently, Cyrix's commercially released chips rely on the .35 micron process.

National is also currently manufacturing test silicon for the Cyrix MediaGX chip, an integrated processor which has so far enjoyed more major design wins than the 6X86, according to sources close to Cyrix. Pilot production of 0.25 process MediaGX processors from the National plant are anticipated for the first half of 1998, the source added.

Cyrix, meanwhile, will continue to work with IBM, Maher said. "We will manufacture with whoever has the best capabilities," he said.

"Over time this will help," said Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research. "National has a really nice 0.25 fab as well," he added.

National completed its acquisition of Cyrix in November. Although the company had a license from Intel to manufacture X86 chips, it is not active in that market.