Samsung, Globalfoundries Partner on 14nm Chip Process

The alliance gives both companies more leverage against Taiwan Semiconductor, the world's largest chip foundry.

Samsung Electronics and Globalfoundries are partnering to jointly develop 14-nanometer processors that feature a three-dimensional transistor architecture, a move that will challenge top chip foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and will put more pressure on Intel's growing foundry business.

Globalfoundries will license Samsung's latest chip design, which includes a 14nm FinFET architecture that is designed to increase the performance and energy efficiency in the processors by moving away from a flat transistor architecture to a 3D one. Such capabilities are increasingly important in the booming smartphone and tablet markets.

The move essentially means that chipmakers that want to build their products based on Samsung's 14nm design will be able to bring their designs to either foundry for manufacturing, expanding their supply options. They also will be able to switch between the two foundries if necessary without having to touch their designs, according to officials with both companies.

"With this industry-first alignment of 14nm FinFET production capabilities, we can offer greater choice and flexibility to the world's leading fabless semiconductor companies, while helping the fabless industry to maintain its leadership in the mobile device market," Globalfoundries CEO Sanjay Jha said in a statement.

Fewer chip vendors make their own processors, choosing instead to save the money needed to keep expensive fabrication facilities maintained and up-to-date by handing off their designs to foundries like Globalfoundries and Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC), which reportedly controls about half of the global chip foundry market. Intel continues to run massive fabs, with officials calling their manufacturing capabilities an asset when competing against the likes of Advanced Micro Devices and Qualcomm.

Intel more recently also began to build a foundry business that can take advantage of those manufacturing capabilities and bring in more revenue to the company. Intel has a number of customers, with the largest being Altera. Intel last year agreed to build Altera's ARM-based quad-core Stratix 10 programmable processors, and in March announced it was expanding the agreement to include multi-die devices that integrate Altera's field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) with other components.

The chips also will incorporate Intel's 14nm Tri-Gate 3D transistor architecture, which is similar to the FinFET design.

"The foundry team extended our collaboration with Altera to the development of multi-dye devices that take advantage of our world-class package and assembly capabilities and Altera's leading-edge programmable logic," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said April 15 during a conference call with analysts and journalists to talk about the company's first-quarter financial numbers.

Samsung officials said their company's 14nm FinFET design—which has been licensed by Globalfoundries—already is finding interest from chip makers. The 3D design results in 20 percent faster speeds, 35 percent less power and 15 percent more space being used than 20nm planar technology, company officials said.

The companies, which announced the partnership April 17, will do the volume production of the chips at Samsung's manufacturing facilities in Austin, Texas, and Hwaseong, Korea, and at Globalfoundries' fab in Saratoga, N.Y.

Samsung and Globalfoundries, which was spun out of Advanced Micro Devices several years ago, also are making process design kits—with mobile, design rules and technology—available immediately to give customers the tools to start designing their chips. Mass production of the 14nm FinFET technology will begin at the end of the year, the companies said.