Enterprise

Moore’s Law is all but dead. This new transistor design could keep it alive and reshuffle the industry.

Intel, Samsung and TSMC are racing to achieve a generational leap in transistor technology. It might reshuffle the industry pecking order.

Video: Intel via YouTube

A once-in-a-decade shift is underway involving one of the most elemental building blocks of computer chips, and it has the potential to reshuffle the pecking order of chip giants for years to come.

Intel, Samsung and TSMC are racing to achieve a generational leap in transistor technology. This leap must occur to realize anything close to the computing requirements demanded by the ideas behind the metaverse, to produce AI that isn’t a joke, to make truly self-driving cars or even make apps load faster.

This next-generation design is called “gate-all-around.” With new materials, and redesigned manufacturing tools that cost tens of millions each, the new gates accomplish one thing: They more tightly control the flow of electricity received by each transistor. Modern chips can have upwards of 30 billion transistors on a single device, and in some cases tens of billions more. In 2025, Gartner expects chip manufacturers to generate roughly $5 billion in revenue from the new technology, up from nothing last year.

Chip companies must deliver substantially more computing horsepower every year to get to a version of the future that’s been promised by the tech titans. Doing so requires some of the most complex, expensive manufacturing equipment on the planet, and the development of even more creative ways to improve fundamental aspects of chip construction. That means making already atomic-sized features even smaller. This process, loosely described as Moore’s law, has kept the chip industry humming for a half-century, but it’s getting harder.

“The rate at which we're shrinking is for sure slowing down, big time,” Applied Materials Vice President Kevin Moraes said.

Chip manufacturers improve high-volume production and performance with a combination of advanced tools such as extreme ultraviolet lithography machines and techniques that help squeeze more features onto each piece of silicon. Typically manufacturers tout improvements to their techniques and technologies as process nodes that use smaller and smaller nanometer numbers.

But another way to tackle the increasingly difficult problem is to further refine the fundamental building block of each chip: the transistor.

“Process nodes are just one measure of the progress,” Jack Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, said. “I’d argue that even more important is the design of the transistors themselves, and not just the process node. To that end, Intel and others have been advancing the design of the transistors, particularly in the way the gates are designed.”

Better gates, faster chips

A gate is the tiny portion on each transistor that controls whether a transistor receives electricity — kind of like using your foot on a garden hose to turn water on or off — in order to represent the zeros and ones that make up bits of data. But gates, like hoses, can be imperfect, and some of the electricity can slip through even with the most advanced designs.

“As you start making things smaller, you learn that there are some electrical characteristics with smaller elements that didn’t work as well as they did when they were bigger,” FeibusTech analyst Mike Feibus said. “There’s a rule of thumb that the smaller you get, the more current leakage you’re going to get, which is more heat.”

Because chipmakers know some electricity will evade the gate, it’s becoming harder to continue to shrink features to achieve the power consumption and performance expected of new designs. And to build more efficient gates and transistors that generate less power, chipmakers spend billions of dollars inventing the next, better way to develop them.

“Gate-all-around-based designs will have significantly better performance and efficiency than [existing] designs, potentially shifting the competitive position for many high-performance products,” MLCommons Executive Director David Kanter said.

Surrounding all four sides of a part of the transistor with material instead of the current three-sided design allows the gate to better regulate the flow of electricity. At the atomic scale chips operate at, having better control over the flow of electricity gives designers new options: most importantly, making them even smaller.

Smaller transistors allow designers to squeeze more of them onto a single chip and adding more of these tiny features roughly translates to an improvement in the chip’s ability to perform calculations.

“With better heat and power characteristics, that means you can turn up the juice — with all else being equal — you will have higher clock rates and you won’t need as exotic cooling for high-performance designs, so that can cut costs,” Feibus said.

The manufacturer that successfully deploys the new generation of gate tech in high-volume production will be able to manufacture chips with a leap in computing horsepower that’s impossible with the current process technology.

Fastest out of the gate

All three of the largest chip manufacturers are trying to figure out how to take advantage of this promising technology. This issue isn’t producing one batch of chips with the new feature; it's producing hundreds of thousands, or millions of chips, at the scale at which the most advanced technologies are needed.

Samsung may have a leg up. One of the company’s executives, Kinam Kim, co-authored an early technical paper about the new gate technology nearly 20 years ago. The company was one of the earliest to commit to producing next-generation gates, discussing its path to move to the tech in 2017. In April, Samsung said the company was on track to produce chips at high volume with the new gates this year.

However, there is reason to be skeptical of its progress. Samsung, which did not return a request for comment, has had widely reported problems with ensuring its latest manufacturing process can produce a sufficient number of working chips and has pushed back its planned launch date for the new gates several times, according to Gartner chips analyst Gaurav Gupta.

So even if the company does roll out the new design on certain chips, it might not be a viable option for its high-volume customers who demand reliability — a six-month delay to a new iPhone launch would be disastrous to Apple’s business, for example.

“Samsung has always been saying they will be the first to the gate-all-around at three nanometers,” Gupta said. “And they have been pushing it — next six months, [another] six months more, [another] six months. They’re saying now they are expecting it by the end of the year.”

Intel says that its current plans call for the technology to roll out in 2024 for high-volume customers. There is reason for skepticism with Intel’s efforts too; the company went through years of delays on the last several generations of manufacturing improvements. It was also the last to adopt the EUV lithography tech that is widely viewed as necessary for future improvements. An Intel spokesperson said the company remained on track to hit its roadmap goals.

But Intel was the first company to successfully make chips at high volume with the current generation of gates, which suggests that it has the technical institutional knowledge to do it again. Under CEO Pat Gelsinger, the business has a far clearer direction than the years of dysfunction that preceded him. Still, Intel has a lot to prove, and part of Gelsinger’s plan includes what Gupta described as a “very aggressive” strategy to regain its manufacturing leadership.

As it now stands, TSMC will be the last major manufacturer to move to new gate technology. Executives are tight-lipped, and the company didn’t respond to a request for comment, but TSMC has disclosed that it plans to roll it out sometime in 2025. People familiar with the company’s operations said that, overall, TSMC is a conservatively run business that prefers to avoid risks, if at all possible, and moving to a new, unproven gate technology is a big risk.

But the new gates may matter less to TSMC than its rivals. The majority of its customers buy smartphone chips, and the company has proven that it can make them with the EUV tools that Intel and Samsung have struggled to deploy. As a result, TSMC may be able to use other techniques for the time being to eke out more performance from its silicon until it can ship the new gate designs.

“The thing is, it's all about power and performance, and you see 90%-plus of customers at advanced nodes in the foundry business are with TSMC,” Gupta said, adding that if TSMC’s manufacturing using existing gate technology is superior to Samsung’s, TSMC won’t lose customers.

Sticking with the current generation of transistors has its advantages for chip designers too. New gates require some aspects of chip designs to get scrapped, and industry analysts said that the road to make a chip with new gates could easily exceed two or three years. So if a chipmaker such as Qualcomm, AMD or Nvidia were to make a bet that the new gates can be made this year, and that doesn’t happen, they could be badly hurt.

“They call it bleeding edge for a reason,” Feibus said. “Sometimes you get cut up.”

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