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Inside GlobalFoundries long road to the leading edge

A recent tour of the company's remarkable fab in upstate New York illustrated both how far the foundry has come and how challenging the future will be for advanced chipmakers.

Mar. 13, 2018 – 

There are only a handful of companies in the world that design processors using leading-edge technology. Even fewer are equipped to manufacture these chips. Intel makes its own, Taiwan's TSMC and GlobalFoundries are pure-play foundries that make chips for other companies, and Samsung is a little of both. The competition is intense, the fabs cost billions, and it takes years to develop a new process and ramp it to volume production. Not surprisingly, these chipmakers like to keep things close to the vest, so when GlobalFoundries recently welcomed a small group of journalists to its fab in upstate New York, it was a rare opportunity to see a leading-edge fab in action.

The fact that a plant this large and advanced exists at all in the woods of Malta, New York, a small town just north of Albany, seems like a bit of a miracle. It hasn't been an easy road. The company, created when chipmaker AMD spun-off its manufacturing operations, broke ground in 2009 on a 250-acre site where General Electric scientists tested rockets during the Cold War. The state offered $1.2 billion in incentives and in exchange GlobalFoundries agreed to invest $3.2 billion in a fab that would employ 1,200 people with a payroll around $72 million.

GlobalFoundries planned to start production on a 32nm process by 2011 and eventually ramp production to 60,000 wafers per month with additional expansion on the drawing board. But manufacturing yields were low at both the 32nm and 28nm nodes--which required new materials--and its key customer, AMD, was struggling to keep pace with Intel. The 20nm node was a bust for the entire industry because the so-called planar transistor architecture had run out of steam (Intel had already shifted to 3D transistors, known as FinFETs, starting at 22nm). GlobalFoundries was suddenly confronted with developing an entirely new architecture while simultaneously getting the fab up to speed.

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