Intel on Thursday announced that it would delay mass production of its 10 nm processors from 2018 to 2019 due to yield issues. The company has claimed to be shipping some of its 10 nm chips in small volumes right now, but due to cost reasons the firm does not intend to initiate their high-volume manufacturing (HVM) at this time. Intel executives also stated that they are confident of their product roadmap and intend to launch Whiskey Lake and Cascade Lake products later this year.

Multipatterning Issues

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, stated during a conference call with financial analysts:

“We are shipping [10-nm chips] in low volume and yields are improving, but the rate of improvement is slower than we anticipated. As a result, volume production is moving from the second half of 2018 into 2019. We understand the yield issues and have defined improvements for them, but they will take time to implement and qualify.”

Intel blames a very high transistor density and consequent heavy use of multipatterning for low yields. Brian Krzanich has said that in certain cases the company needs to use quad (4x), penta (5x), or hexa (6x) patterning for select features as they need to expose the wafer up to six times to “draw” one feature. This not only lengthens Intel’s manufacturing cycle (which by definition rises costs) and the number of masks it uses, but also has an effect on yields.

Intel’s 10 nm fabrication technology relies solely on deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography with lasers operating on a 193 nm wavelength at this time. The company’s 7 nm manufacturing process will use extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography with laser wavelength of 13.5 nm for select layers, eliminating use of extreme multipatterning for certain metal layers. As it appears, right now Intel executives do not consider EUV technology ready for prime time in 2019, so the company’s engineers have to polish off the last DUV-only process (again) rather than jump straight to 7 nm.

10 nm Ramp in 2019

Intel does not elaborate whether it intends to ship (in volume) its 10 nm CPUs in the first half or the second half of 2019, but only says that the company’s engineers know the source of the yield problems and are working hard to fix them. As a result, it is pretty safe to assume that the actual ramp of Intel’s 10 nm production will begin towards the second half of next year.

“We are going to start that ramp as soon as we think the yields are in line, so I said 2019,” Mr. Krzanich noted. “We did not say first or second half, but we will do it as quickly as we can, based on the yield.”

In a bid to stay competitive before its 10-nm CPUs ship in the H2 2019 – H1 2020 (production ramp takes time, bigger processors will launch later than smaller parts), Intel plans to release another generation of products made using its 14 nm process tech. This generation of chips includes Whiskey Lake products for client PCs and Cascade Lake for the datacenter, and both are scheduled for release later this year.

Questions Remain: 10 nm Slip from 2016

Intel’s 10 nm manufacturing process has a long history of delays and without any doubts this transition has been the hardest in the company’s history. Let's do a quick recap.

First Production
1999 180 nm
2001 130 nm
2003 90 nm
2005 65 nm
2007 45 nm
2009 32 nm
2011 22 nm
2014 14 nm
2016 10 nm
2017 10 nm
2018 10 nm?
2019 10 nm!

Intel originally planned to commence shipments of its first processors made using their 10 nm fabrication technology in the second half of 2016. The first rumors about Intel’s problems with the tech started to spread in early 2015 as the company delayed the installation of equipment needed for its 10 nm manufacturing process. Then, in July 2015, the chip giant confirmed intentions to postpone 10 nm HVM from H2 2016 to H2 2017 due to difficulties incurred by multipatterning. Instead, the company promised to release its Kaby Lake products with enhancements and made using a refined 14 nm process (known as 14+ later).

Over the course of 2016 and 2017 we learned that Intel was prepping Cannon Lake (mobile, entry-level desktops), Ice Lake (higher-end client PCs, servers), and Tiger Lake chips on their 10 nm node. We also heard about various problems that Intel faced with its 10 nm technology, but the company refuses to comment on them. The chipmaker did demonstrate a system running a mobile Cannon Lake SoC at CES 2017, with a promise to release this processors late that year. Somewhere along the line, both Ice Lake and Tiger Lake slipped to 2018, which was partly confirmed by the launch of the Coffee Lake CPU made using a revamped 14 nm (14++) in late 2017.

Intel officially introduced the 10 nm fabrication process at IEDM 2017 and said it was on track to start shipments of CNL CPUs in early 2018. In January this year Intel confirmed that they had started to ship Cannon Lake processors in small volumes, but never elaborated. We have since learned that these were CNL-U parts in uninspiring 2+2 and CNL 2+0 configurations, however so far Intel has refused to state who the customer is or where anyone can buy them, despite repeated requests for this information.

Being a very large company, Intel has a multifaceted strategy that spans across product lines and generations. Right now, Intel is battling with yield issues that plague its Cannon Lake product family and the first-gen 10 nm manufacturing process. There are other 10 nm products in the pipeline that are to be made using a refined fabrication technology (such as 10+, 10++). It is pretty obvious that Intel will learn how to improve its 10 nm yields with the CNL lineup, but what remains to be seen is how significantly the delays of this product family affect launch schedules of its successors. Despite Intel's statements, there is outside discussion that Intel could decide to switch right to 7 nm, bypassing 10 nm altogether.

Related Reading

Sources: Intel, SeekingAlpha

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  • Anymoore - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - link

    Not sure how they got hexa-patterning. The IEDM paper said they used quad-patterning, self-aligned type, on three layers, at most. TSMC has been using this for 10nm FinFETs already. There does not appear to be any excessive multi-patterning. However, Intel did use cobalt in combination with the most difficult multi-patterning. I wonder if that aggravated the situation. Adding EUV would only make things more complicated with two new process additions (EUV and cobalt).
  • HStewart - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - link

    The following job offering may provide some insight in what Intel is doing with next generation of CPU's - some call Oceans Cove

    I don't believe these are the Core CPU group - in the early 90's I met someone on the P5 performance group. But that did not work - it was odd - I had 7 years of x86 programming experience on OS level and they want C/C++ programmers.
  • HStewart - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - link

    I don't believe Jim Keller is actually in the core - core CPU group - but that is hard to tell with Intel.
  • Yojimbo - Sunday, April 29, 2018 - link

    Yeah, I read somewhere that he is going to be working on SoCs for Intel. I don't remember the source for that information, though. In any case, if Keller were taking over the lead of their Xeon/Core architecture design that would be a major shift that Intel would likely come out and announce to their investors.

    It's possible that Keller will be working on Intel's self-driving car efforts similar to what he was just involved with at Tesla. Intel has various technologies they want to mold together into a product, including Atom and what they got from Movidius, Altera, Nervana, and Mobileye.
  • HStewart - Sunday, April 29, 2018 - link

    Just like Raja, this does not mean the technology in SoC's would not end up in the consumer line - as technology gets more advance - more parts of CPU get integrated in the chip. One will be foolish to think it is chance that Raju change and development of 8705G - but AMD graphics is only temporary - I would also think it chance that both Jim Keller and Raju have relations with Apple.

    I also believe that idea of Apple leaving Intel is false information.
  • dhjffryhhjfgbj - Sunday, April 29, 2018 - link

    Intel (tmg) does not have a technology problem, but a culture problem. The motto is "everyone is expendable, for any reason I (the manager) see fit". Intel (tmg) is currently losing engineers and technician s faster then the technology cycle (if a tech needs 4 years, engineers leave in <2), the system has purged itself of any competence, and rewarded the worst of the worst. You can't do development in such a toxic and regressive environment! Let's rephrase:"you can't use third world management skills to lead a high tech development company". Intel will need years to recover from the damage done in the last six-ish years.
  • peevee - Monday, April 30, 2018 - link

    Can you elaborate? Are you talking about Sohail Ahmed?
  • dhjffryhhjfgbj - Saturday, May 5, 2018 - link

    Sohail's iron fist obliterated anyone who dared to oppose him...he obliterated out entire generations of engineers from intel within a year or two. TMG is now nothing more then a high-tech kinder garden, where people with 2 years experience are considered as senior. He is a genius but his fanatic perfectionist attitude created an unworkable environment. 10nm is not a technological problem in intel but organizational. The system is Sohail, Sohail is the system.
  • eastcoast_pete - Sunday, April 29, 2018 - link

    Whichever way Intel will spin this, they got caught napping. Intel's supremacy in laptops, desktops and servers was based on being ahead in both uarch and lithography , and both are under attack. Samsung and TSMC have both invested multi-billions $$$ in new fans and extreme ultraviolet technology, haven't heard similar from Intel. Really hope their recent exit from wearables means a re-focus on their core strength. In the meantime, you go, AMD! A strong competition is what makes companies push boundaries. Zen and Epyc plus the move to 10nm is just the kind of fire under chipzilla's butt that gets them going again.
  • eastcoast_pete - Sunday, April 29, 2018 - link

    strike fans, I meant fabs - damn auto correct

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