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IBM closer to improved chip process

Big Blue is set to announce it has passed a milestone on the road to adopting a better chipmaking process--test versions of a new 90-nanometer chip should appear in early 2003.

IBM plans to announce Monday that it has passed another milestone on the road toward adopting an improved process for manufacturing semiconductors.

The company will announce that it has begun work on its first 90-nanometer chip, a "field programmable gate array" processor that Big Blue will manufacture for chip designer Xilinx.

Moving to a 90-nanometer chipmaking process means smaller transistors, which in turn means more transistors on a chip and better performing chips. IBM's current generation of semiconductors is built using a 130-nanometer manufacturing process--the nanometer measurement refers to the average size of features inside chips, such as transistors and the interconnects that link them.

IBM, which recently received the design specifications for the FPGA chip from Xilinx, should begin producing test versions of the chip during the first quarter, said Michael Concannon, vice president of foundry services for IBM Microelectronics. In the interim, it will perform interim steps, such as designing manufacturing tools needed to produce the chip.

"The target here--given that everything is finalized on the design side--is to begin (full-on) 90-nanometer production in the second half of 2003," Concannon said.

Unlike PC processors, FPGA chips can be programmed to perform several different duties. They're often used in devices that sell in markets where standardized equipment hasn't been agreed on, an IBM representative said. That way, if proposed standards change, a design doesn't have to be thrown out; the chips can simply be reprogrammed. Such markets include communications, consumer electronics and other areas where standards are fluid.

The transition to a 90-nanometer process is a major undertaking for IBM, which spent about $2.5 billion to build its newest manufacturing plant, in East Fishkill, N.Y. That plant will begin moving to 90-nanometer manufacturing shortly, with volume production set for the second half of 2003.

IBM and Intel will be among the first chipmakers to ship chips built using a 90-nanometer process. Intel has been building test chips using a 90-nanometer process since last February. The company plans to begin shipping its first 90-nanometer processors in large quantities to PC makers and consumers during the second half of next year, a company representative said.

In addition to performing better, new 90 nanometer chips--such as the Xilinx FPGA, future IBM PowerPC chips or a forthcoming Pentium 4 chip from Intel dubbed Prescott--will also be smaller and less expensive to produce than their predecessors. The Xilinx FPGA will be 50 percent to 80 percent smaller than the current FPGAs and is expected to cost between 30 percent and 70 percent less, according to IBM. Moving to a new manufacturing process typically lowers power consumption as well.

But chipmakers acknowledge that continuing to make the same sort of gains will get harder as time goes by. As companies design smaller chips with more transistors, they face the prospect of increases in power consumption and major electrical interference from extra transistors.

Anticipating those future problems, Intel, IBM and others are turning to research. IBM and Intel have adopted or invented several new manufacturing tricks to address these issues in future manufacturing steps, such as an envisioned 65-nanometer process. Such tricks will include the more extensive use of new materials, the adoption of manufacturing techniques such as silicon on insulator and strained silicon, and more exotic measures like the creation of multigate transistors.