Update: After some emailing back and forth, we can confirm that the slide that Intel's partner ASML presented at the IEDM conference is actually an altered version of what Intel presented for the September 2019 source. ASML added animations to the slide such that the bottom row of dates correspond to specific nodes, however at the time we didn't spot these animations (neither did it seem did the rest of the press). It should be noted that the correlation that ASML made to exact node names isn't so much a stretch of the imagination to piece together, however it has been requested that we also add the original Intel slide to provide context to what Intel is saying compared to what was presented by ASML. Some of the wording in the article has changed to reflect this. Our analysis is still relevant.

One of the interesting disclosures here at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) has been around new and upcoming process node technologies. Almost every session so far this week has covered 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm processes (as the industry calls them).  What we didn’t expect to see disclosed was an extended roadmap of Intel’s upcoming manufacturing processes. It should be noted that the slide presented at the conference by Intel's partner, ASML, was modified slightly from its original source.

They say a slide is worth 1000 words. Here’s 1000 words on Intel's future.


Intel's slide, as presented in September

This is Intel's original slide, not detailing which nodes in which years. However, it should be easy enough to figure out that each one of the elements in the bottom row is the next process node along, otherwise the +/++ wouldn't make sense.

ASML applied these assumptions to the slide it presented at the IEDM keynote, but the company did not disclose that they had modified the slide.

Intel's slide with ASML's animations overlayed, as shown in the slide deck distributed by ASML

So let’s go through some key areas.

1.4nm in 2029

Intel expects to be on 2 year cadence with its manufacturing process node technology, starting with 10nm in 2019 and moving to 7nm EUV in 2021, then a fundamental new node in each of 2023, 2025, 2027, 2029. This final node is what ASML has dubbed '1.4nm'. This is the first mention on 1.4nm in the context of Intel on any Intel-related slide. For context, if that 1.4nm is indicative of any actual feature, would be the equivalent of 12 silicon atoms across.

It is perhaps worth noting that some of the talks at this year’s IEDM features dimensions on the order of 0.3nm with what are called ‘2D self-assembly’ materials, so something this low isn’t unheard of, but it is unheard of in silicon. Obviously there are many issues going that small that Intel (and its partners) will have to overcome.

+, ++, and Back Porting

In between each process node, as Intel has stated before, there will be iterative + and ++ versions of each in order to extract performance from each process node. The only exception to this is 10nm, which is already on 10+, so we will see 10++ and 10+++ in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Intel believes they can do this on a yearly cadence, but also have overlapping teams to ensure that one full process node can overlap with another.

The interesting element to these slides is the mention of back porting. This is the ability for a chip to be designed with one process node in mind, but perhaps due to delays, can be remade on an older ‘++’ version of a process node in the same timeframe. Despite Intel stating that they are disaggregating chip design from process node technology, at some point there has to be a commitment to a process node in order to start the layouts in silicon. At that point the process node procedure is kind of locked, especially when it goes to mask creation.

In the slide, it shows that Intel is going to allow a workflow such that any first gen 7nm design could be back ported to 10+++, any first gen 5nm design could be back ported to 7++, and so on. One can argue that this roadmap might not be so strict with the dates – we have seen Intel’s 10nm take a long time to bake, so expecting the company to move with a yearly cadence on + updates alongside a two-year cadence with main process technology nodes would appear to be a very optimistic and aggressive cadence strategy.

Note that this isn’t the first mention of back porting hardware designs when it comes to Intel. With the current delays to Intel’s 10nm process technology, it has been widely rumoured that some of Intel’s future CPU microarchitecture designs, originally designed with 10nm (or 10+, 10++) in mind might actually find a home on a 14nm process due to the success of that process node.

Development and Research

Normally with process node developments, there will be different teams working on each process node. This slide states that Intel is currently in development of its 10+++ optimizations as well as the 7nm family. The idea is that the ‘+’ updates are capturing the low hanging fruit from a design standpoint every generation, and the number represents a full node benefit. Interestingly we see Intel’s 7nm being based on 10++, whereas in the future Intel sees 5nm come from the base 7nm design, and 3nm coming from 5nm. There is no doubt that some of the optimizations that enter each +/++ update will filter into future designs as and when they are needed.

In this slide, we have Intel’s 2023 node currently in the definition stage. At this IEDM conference there’s a lot of talk about 5nm in this timeframe, so some of those improvements (such as manufacturing, materials, consistency, etc.) will ultimately end up in Intel’s process depending on which design houses they partner with (historically Applied Materials). It is worth noting that 5nm is listed as a 2023 node, which is around the time that ASML will start selling its ‘High NA’ EUV machines to help with better path definition during the manufacturing process. I’m not sure if High NA will intercept at 5nm or 3nm, assuming this Intel roadmap has its dates correct and Intel is able to stick to it, but it is something to consider

Beyond 2023, Intel is currently in the ‘path-finding’ and 'research' mode. As always when looking this far out, Intel is considering new materials, new transistor designs, and such. At this IEDM conference we’re seeing a lot of talk of gate-all-around transistors, either as nano-sheets or nano-wires, so no doubt we’re going to see some of that as FinFET runs out of steam. TSMC is still using FinFETs for its 5nm process (Intel’s 7nm equivalent), so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something like nano-sheets then nano-wires (or even hybrid designs) come into Intel’s manufacturing stack.

It’s worth also pointing out, based on the title of this slide, that Intel still believes in Moore’s Law. Just don’t ask how much it’ll cost.

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  • nevcairiel - Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - link

    In the same event they have fully acknowledged the failure of 10nm, the reason being that they were trying to be too aggressive (aiming at a 2.7x improvement over 14nm), which caused all the trouble.

    As a consequence, they dialed the 7nm goal into a more realistic 2.0x in comparison to 10nm, and with lessons learned from the 10nm debacle, they will hopefully manage. Before the 10nm problems, Intel was an absolute market leader in process technology, they just overstepped badly. With more realistic goals, they should get back on track.
  • KAlmquist - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    Intel had announced that they were replacing their Tick Tock strategy (a new process node every 2 years) with a Process, Architecture, Optimization strategy (a new process node every 3 years). Essentially, Intel was saying that with the increasing complexity of developing a new node, the 3 years it took to get the 14nm process working would become the new normal. Now that Intel is again talking about introducing a new process node every two years, it becomes very relevant that Intel wasn't able to get either 14nm or 10nm done in a 2 year time frame.
  • p1esk - Thursday, December 12, 2019 - link

    Well, yes, this is a shareholder communication. If they can't attract shareholders, they won't have money to do the research. What would you do if you had to produce a single slide about the roadmap?
  • nico_mach - Thursday, December 12, 2019 - link

    There's a difference between a little spin and promising jetpacks and moon colonies by 2029. I get that the CEO won't be around that long, but this is deeply frivolous and aimed at uneducated investors. And I'm not even outraged, because look at the times we're living in, but we should all be worried about the stock market when it's getting this stupid. Who the hell thinks tariffs are going away? Is it all just algorithms now and there's no BS metric yet?
  • milkywayer - Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - link

    Only on the slides if we look at their track record. I've a feeling we'll be on 10nm++++++++ in 2029. Sorry if I missed a + there.
  • qlum - Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - link

    Nah, they will just be reintroducing 65nm to cope with supply shortages.
  • Kangal - Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - link

    Intel is first and foremost a semiconductor foundry.
    Their issues since 2015 remind me of the issues GlobalFoundaries had, which was a spin-off from the former AMD company. They just can't innovate and keep up with the competition when it comes to the lithography.

    And their architecture, basically Skylake, also reminds me of AMD and their FX-series. For its time, the unified core was an advanced idea but it wasn't quite refined or efficient. The same can be said about the Core i7-9900K using a monolithic design, it's not refined or efficient enough to keep up with Ryzen (or Zen2).

    The rational part wants me to see Intel innovate as soon as possible and rise back to the top for some healthy competition. Whereas there's a bigger part of me hoping this continues for a couple more years, to the point where mindshare of Intel is seen as "lower quality", with a much smaller marketshare, and massive drop in their company's cash reserves and stock prices. I want them to grovel. And I only want Intel to make a comeback when they've sorted out their chip fabrication and architecture, where they can out-compete AMD. I feel like if that long-term negative experience happens in the market, a lot of "bad blood" and "bloat" will be removed from their company... then maybe the industry will (learn something and) stay competitive for much longer: eg Remember the late 90's ??
  • jkh - Thursday, December 12, 2019 - link

    I completely agree with you. I would like to see Intel keep getting sucker-punched for another year or two. They need to be humbled. If they are forced to shift their mindset from that of the market dominating goliath, to that of the underdog struggling to stay relevant, we will all benefit. Plus they deserve to be slapped around for a while, their market practices and complacency is catching up to them.
  • Adonisds - Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - link

    Sounds amazing, but I wouldnt call it optimistic like the article does. At this point it's just dishonest to promise this cadence.
    This news makes the rumor that sunny cove will be backported to 14nm more plausible.
  • dullard - Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - link

    Where did Intel PROMISE to hit this cadence on time? Posters here need to take a step back and allow people/companies have goals, even stretch goals. Intel may not hit their goals, but at least they should have them. Heck, it wasn't even Intel presenting this slide.

    EUV will make 7 nm and 5 nm far easier than 14 nm and 10 nm. I personally doubt that 1.4 nm will be available in 2029. But still, don't condemn a company for striving and don't put words into their mouth pretending that research goals are a promise.

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