Intel’s 3D Transistor…

It seems to be that everything is going 3D at the moment, Nintendo’s 3DS portable 3D and TV manufacturers trying to convince us all to wear goofy glasses aren’t the only 3D revolutions happening, Intel has jumped on the 3D bandwagon with their announcement of 3D transistors on Wednesday – 4th May 2011, San Francisco press conference -. The transistor is considered by many to be the greatest invention of the 20th century, frankly it should be up there with the discovery of fire. It is the building block of every gadget and make life easier device made today with the 3D transistor being an important step in its evolution

Intel’s announcement introduced the world to Ivy Bridge, the internal product name for their next generation processors, the commercial product will be designated with a model number, eg 2600K once it goes on sale. The presentation given covered many of the breakthroughs and benefits of the new 3D technology. 37% performance increase over previous generations, half power requirements at same performance levels. Ivy Bridge will be released in the last quarter of 2011, initially the processors will be used in servers but the technology will be spread across Intel’s entire product line as the manufacturing process matures, production numbers increase and price drops.

In the world of transistors things have traditionally been very flat, so flat they are called Planar Transistors. Operating in a true 2D sense, the wiring of the transistors are laid out flat in lines with intersecting junctions or Gates where the wires cross and switches are located. By making the layout 3D height is added to the equation, allowing much thinner wires to carry more power in less space. There is also much more surface area at the gates that form the switches of the transistor.

The electronics industry – semi-conductor industry specifically – is in a continual battle to shrink everything, making bits faster and cheaper. This isn’t just a bonsai fascination, the smaller a transistor is the faster it can be switched on and off along with lower power requirements when the switch is on. All desirable when building the next generation über laptop. The size of a transistor on a chip has such a great impact on the performance of the chip that each generation of manufacturing process – including equipment,, process and technology – is named after this measurement. Intel’s brand new Ivy Bridge processors will be produced using 22nm manufacturing technology. This is the next shrink due to occur at Intel, shifting them away from the 32nm standard still being introduced by most other manufacturers. At it’s very basic a transistor is just a switch that can be set to on or off, just as a normal light switch acts with its light. So in 22nm manufacturing the wires and switches are 22nm in diameter, with an nm – nanometer – being defined as a billionth of a meter. To put this into perspective 100million transistors of this size could fit on the head of a pin. Incredibly Ivy Bridge will have more than 2.9 billion transistor built into one little wafer of silicon.

Other companies including AMD and IBM have this same technology on their roadmaps and it will eventually be an industry standard. At the moment though many companies are calling Intels move to 3D transistors a risky and premature move. The extra complexity of the individual transistors will lead to more defective chips and lower yields – number of working chips versus defective chips -. While the shift to 3D transistors has some inherent risks the benefits obviously out weighed the risks for Intel. 3D could be a house of cards that comes crashing down. Intel’s press release talks about such advantages as 50% power savings, 33% speed increases and better off current power, unfortunately the only way to tell if the benefits have been worth the risk is to wait for Ivy Bridge to be released.

Intel has an interesting system in place to manage the risks involved in the continual evolution of their technology. Cadence of Innovation is the term Intel gives to this process in which they split the evolution into two different streams, the evolution of the manufacturing technology – production machines and factories – and the evolution of the processors themselves, the products of Intel’s manufacturing factories. Using a tick toc one at a time system Intel will never overlap the transition to a new generation of either system, they do one, then the other. In the shift to 3D manufacturing Intel has kept the design of the chip being produced basically the same as the current processors – Sandy Bridge -. In essence this lets them concentrate on one set of problems at a time. This actually makes the 37% performance increase of Ivy Bridge very impressive, this increase is totally from the process change – factory upgrades – , not from improving the design of the processor or any other design tricks Intel may have up their sleeve.

The original breakthrough work on 3D Transistors was done by a team of researchers at University of California, Berkeley. Chenming Hu on a flight to Japan in 1996 wrote the technical specifications in response to a request from DARPA for technology that would allow transistors to shrink down to 25nm sizes and lower. The first demonstration transistors were produced in 1999 by Hu, Jeffrey Bokor, and Tsu-Jae King Liu at Berkeley. Over a number of years the work was further refined, in 2002 the technology was released to the public. Intel is only one of many large corporations that have adopted the Berkeley research and ran with it. Even after Intel saw the benefits of the new technology it took 10 years to take this from a theory to practice. Ivy Bridge will be the first product released to use the new 3D technology produced on 22nm manufacturing technology.

Intel will have 5 of 8 manufacturing facilitiesFabs – ready to roll with the new 22nm process during the 2011-2012 period. One of Intel’s major advantages over its competition is the high number of manufacturing facilities it has been able to maintain. They can quite happily keep the current generation facility running at top speed while the spare fabs are converted to the new process or even just use them for testing if there are a number of competing technologies. This combined with the 18month lead they have on the rest of the electronics manufacturing companies gives Intel a sizeable advantage

The new technology is just another step in the evolution of electronics technology an interesting example of how technology evolution is a slow evolution, a process of overcoming challenges and making progress. There is a constant ebb and flow in the electronics industry, a cycle of facing the next lot of barriers, the exhilaration of solving the issues, quickly followed by the realization that the cycle rolls on as the push to the next manufacturing process begins.

Intel’s 22nm announcement here

Buddha’s Brother out…