Intel’s Process Roadmap to 2025 with 4nm, 3nm, 20A and 18A
In today’s Intel Accelerated event, the company is driving a stake into the ground regarding where it wants to be by 2025. CEO Pat Gelsinger earlier this year stated that Intel would be returning to product leadership in 2025, but hasn’t yet explained how this is coming about – that is until today, where Intel has disclosed its roadmap for its next five generations of process node technology leading to 2025. Intel believes it can follow an aggressive strategy to match and pass its foundry rivals, while at the same time developing new packaging offerings and starting a foundry business for external customers. On top of all this, Intel has renamed its process nodes.
Intel’s Defines a Strong Future: Is TSMC at Risk?
Earlier this year, CEO Pat Gelsinger announced Intel’s new IDM 2.0 strategy, consisting of three elements:
- Build (7nm)
- Expand (TSMC)
- Productize (Intel Foundry Services)
The goal here is to continue to work on Intel’s process node technology development, going beyond the current 10nm designs in production today, but simultaneously using other foundry services from partners (or competitors) to regain/retain Intel’s position in its processors that drive a lot of the company revenue. The third element is IFS, Intel’s Foundry Services, where Intel is committing in a big way to opening up its manufacturing facilities to external semiconductor business.
Underpinning (1) and (3) is how Intel executes on its own process node development. While in Intel’s recent Q3 2021 earnings call CEO Gelsinger confirmed that Intel is now producing more 10nm wafers in a day than 14nm wafers, marking a shift in confidence between the two designs, it is no secret that Intel has had difficulty in transitioning from its 14nm process to its 10nm process. On June 29th this year, Intel also stated that its next generation 10nm product requires additional validation time to streamline deployment on enterprise systems for 2022. Note that at the same time, TSMC has surpassed Intel by shipping at capacity with its equivalent designs (called 7nm) and its leading edge (5nm) designs that surpass Intel’s performance.
As with the previous announcement in March, Intel is reaffirming that it intends to return to leadership performance in semiconductors in 2025. This will enable both the company to compete better as it builds its own products (1) but also offer a wider portfolio of performance and technologies for its future IFS customers (3). To do this, it is realigning the roadmap for its future process node technologies to be more aggressive with improvements, yet at the same time more modular with its technology to enable faster transitions.
Leading up this plan is Dr. Ann B Kelleher, who was named SVP and GM of the Technology Development division at Intel last year. This division is where all the research and development of Intel’s future process node technologies and enhancements comes from – it used to be part of Intel’s System Architecture Group, however it was split in July 2020 to re-establish a focus purely on Technology Development. Dr. Kelleher’s background involves process research in academia, followed by 26 years at Intel as a process engineer, moving up to managing Fab 24 in Ireland, Fab 12 in Arizona, Fab 11X in Rio Rancho, before landing in HQ in Oregon as the GM of Manufacturing and Operations.
Her experience covering both fab-scale production and process node research is going to be critical for Intel’s future plans. In discussing with Kelleher ahead of today’s announcements, she stated that she has implemented fundamental changes when it comes to supplier approach, ecosystem learnings, organizational changes, modular design strategies, contingency plans, and realigning the Technology Development Team into a more streamlined outfit ready to execute. These include key personnel such as Sanjay Natarajan as SVP and GM of Logic Development (one of Intel’s recent rehires) and Babak Sabi as CVP and GM of Assembly/Test Development
Intel is today defining ‘technology leadership by 2025’ as defined by the metric of performance per watt. We asked Intel is a pre-briefing what that means for peak performance, which is often a metric we care about for end product design, and the answer was that “peak performance remains a key part of Intel’s strategic development”.
Intel Renames The Nodes: ‘Mine is Smaller’
The problem with simply posting Intel’s roadmap here is that the news is two-fold. Not only is Intel disclosing the state of its technology for the next several years, but the names of the technology are changing to better align with common industry norms.
It is no secret that having “Intel 10nm” being equivalent to “TSMC 7nm”, even though the numbers actually have nothing to do with the physical implementation, has ground at Intel for a while. A lot of the industry, for whatever reason, hasn’t learned that these numbers aren’t actually a physical measurement. They used to be, but when we moved from 2D planar transistors to 3D FinFET transistors, the numbers became nothing more than a marketing tool. Despite this, every time there’s an article about the technology, people get confused. We’ve been talking about it for half a decade, but the confusion still remains.
To that end, Intel is renaming its future process nodes. Here’s the roadmap image, but I’ll be breaking it down piece by piece.
2020, Intel 10nm SuperFin (10SF): Current generation technology in use with Tiger Lake and Intel’s Xe-LP discrete graphics solutions (SG1, DG1). The name stays the same.
2021 H2, Intel 7: Previously known as 10nm Enhanced Super Fin or 10ESF. Alder Lake and Sapphire Rapids will now be known as Intel 7nm products, showcasing a 10-15% performance per watt gain over 10SF due to transistor optimizations. Alder Lake is currently in volume production. Intel’s Xe-HP will now be known as an Intel 7 product.
2022 H2, Intel 4: Previously known as Intel 7nm. Intel earlier this year stated that its Meteor Lake processor will use a compute tile based on this process node technology, and the silicon is now back in the lab being tested. Intel expects a 20% performance per watt gain over the previous generation, and the technology uses more EUV, mostly in the BEOL. Intel’s next Xeon Scalable product, Granite Rapids, will also use a compute tile based on Intel 4.
2023 H2, Intel 3: Previously known as Intel 7+. Increased use of EUV and new high density libraries. This is where Intel’s strategy becomes more modular – Intel 3 will share some features of Intel 4, but enough will be new enough to describe this a new full node, in particular new high performance libraries. Nonetheless, a fast follow on is expected. Another step up in EUV use, Intel expects a manufacturing ramp in the second half of 2023 with an 18% performance per watt gain over Intel 4.
2024, Intel 20A: Previously known as Intel 5nm. Moving to double digit naming, with the A standing for Ångström, or 10A is equal to 1nm. Few details, but this is where Intel will move from FinFETs to its version of Gate-All-Around (GAA) transistors called RibbonFETs. Also Intel will debut a new PowerVia technology, described below.
2025, Intel 18A: Not listed on the diagram above, but Intel is expecting to have an 18A process in 2025. 18A will be using ASML’s latest EUV machines, known as High-NA machines, which are capable of more accurate photolithography. Intel has stated to us that it is ASML’s lead partner when it comes to High-NA, and is set to receive the first production model of a High-NA machine. ASML recently announced High-NA was being delayed- when asked if this was an issue, Intel said no, as the timelines for High-NA and 18A are where Intel expects to intersect and have unquestioned leadership.
Intel has confirmed to us that Intel 3 and Intel 20A will be offered to foundry customers (but hasn’t stated if Intel 4 or Intel 7 will be).
To bring this altogether in a single table, with known products, we have the following:
One of the issues here is the difference between a process node being ready, ramping production for product launches, and actually being made available. For example, Alder Lake (now on Intel 7nm) is due to come out this year, but Sapphire Rapids is going to be more of a 2022 product. Similarly, there are reports of Raptor Lake on Intel 7 coming out in 2022 to replace Alder Lake with the tiled Meteor Lake on Intel 4 in 2023. While Intel is happy to discuss process node development time frames, product timeframes are not as open (as no doubt customers would get frustrated if the time stated is missed).