From discussions with leaders and a walk through its highly automated New York fab last week, it looks like GlobalFoundries is on track to continue taking customers away from TSMC.
Since the split from AMD in 2009, GlobalFoundries has acted as an independent foundry. It’s much larger rival TSMC is the only other chip maker that can be considered both a pure-play and a leading-edge foundry.
In its early years, GF was dependent on AMD for the majority of its revenue. The lack of competitiveness of some AMD CPU products meant lower throughput for the fabs.
The 14nm process currently in production has been a striking success for GlobalFoundries. Though it attempted to create a 14nm node completely in-house, early on it recognized potential problems with it and decided to partner with Samsung on its 14nm development.
AMD is still the biggest and most influential customer for GF. AMD’s latest processor products including Ryzen and Epyc, in addition to graphics chips based on Polaris and Vega, are all built inside GF’s Fab 8 in Malta, NY.
AMD had a lot of ground to make up against Intel and Nvidia. CEO Lisa Su hasn’t been shy about crediting GlobalFoundries in part for the improvement in its product portfolio through 2017. AMD’s release schedule and product refresh cycle for the products was aggressive.
I toured Fab 8 to see some of the changes taking place. Like TSMC, GF will be starting 7nm production with current lithography techniques, claiming customers are demanding 7nm tape-outs before newer options like extreme ultraviolet litho (EUV) are ready.
TSMC taped out several 7nm chips last year and expects volume production this year. GF is a step behind with an in-house designed 7nm node taping out chips in late 2018 and mass production in 2019.
GF must prove to its customers, AMD among them, that its 7nm capabilities are competitive with TSMC. GF claims its 7nm LP process will provide for mobile processor applications as much as a 30 percent die cost reduction and a 40 percent better performance over its 14nm node.
AMD said (and GF confirmed) it will be splitting its 7nm production across both GF and TSMC. Which chips will be coming from TSMC versus GF is still unclear.
My understanding is AMD plans development of 7nm GPUs and CPUs at both foundries, selecting the best one for each option as late as possible. Given AMD has promised to ship 7nm Zen 2 CPUs and 7nm Vega and Navi GPUs by 2020, the window is closing on that selection process.
While at Fab 8 I was able to see GF’s first working EUV systems. It has space to install four EUV machines in Fab 8, though I only saw two on my visit.
GlobalFoundries isn’t initially going to use EUV for 7nm widely, instead it will begin using the technology for specific jobs such as interconnects. Any fab provider that can implement EUV sooner, without affecting yields, will have the advantage for the near-term as it means more wafers and more customer products in a tighter timeline.
GF sees its FD-SOI technology being ramped up at other locations as the biggest area of potential growth going into 2018 and 2019. Yes, 7nm and EUV technology are the sexy terms tossed around, but those are going to be used by only a handful of the biggest and most demanding customers. 22FDX and 12FDX offer opportunities for mobile chip designers and growing segments like blockchain ASICs, automotive and RF to create cost effective products.
It’s worth noting that in sheer size TSMC had $32 billion in foundry business in 2017, six times what GF had at $5.8 billion last year, according to IC Insights. Samsung's external foundry business was not far behind at $4.8 billion, though its total semiconductor business (including its own SoC production) was $60.8 billion.
The figures don’t mean GF can’t compete as a smaller player. TSMC and Samsung are giants with larger, more robust collections of partners to call on as 7nm deals start being finalized. That said, my tour showed me GlobalFoundries can grow and provide leadership in the foundry space.
--Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research and the owner of PC Perspective.