Michael Feldman at HPCwire posted a blog item yesterday following an announcement by consulting firm iSuppli that reckons that below 20nm chip foundries will become too expensive to ever recoup the capital investment needed to build them. Ever.
The price tag on a new 45nm fab is over a billion dollars today. AMD’s new foundry partner, Globalfoundries, is constructing a 32nm fab in New York with a budget of $4.2 billion, and Intel has already committed $7 billion to upgrade its fabs to produce 32nm chips. You have to sell a lot of chips to recoup those kinds of costs. And those are just capital expenditures.
In the iSuppli announcement, Len Jelinek, the firm’s director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing, explained it thusly:
“The usable limit for semiconductor process technology will be reached when chip process geometries shrink to be smaller than 20 nanometers (nm), to 18nm nodes. At those nodes, the industry will start getting to the point where semiconductor manufacturing tools are too expensive to depreciate with volume production, i.e., their costs will be so high, that the value of their lifetime productivity can never justify it.”
Michael points out that, if it happens, this could shake up our chip monoculture, giving rise to new architectures at both the chip and system level that can deliver the competitive advantage that currently arises from shrinking processes and the relentless tick tock of Intel’s processor cadence.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Moore’s law has been declared in poor health
Of course, none of this may come to pass. Moore’s Law is periodically declared dead and has thus far defied its doomsayers. Additional transistor density may be achieved in other ways, such as 3D semiconductor structures. And there’s no shortage of more exotic approaches like carbon nanotubes, silicon nanowires, molecular crossbars, and spintronics. In any case, whatever happens in 2014, we’re bound to be living in interesting times.