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3D IC success hinges on major foundries

Posted: 12 Nov 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:3D IC? 2.5D? FPGA? foundry?

The semiconductor industry is at a deadlock over the next big thing: 3D chip stacks. Someone needs to blink before the technology will be viable for creating the next generation of high-performance, low-power systems.

It might be Globalfoundries undercutting rival TSMC on foundry prices for a 2.5D process-if it can deliver it. It might be Samsung trying to widen its edge on Apple in smartphone and tablets. Or perhaps Nvidia will take a big hit on margins (maybe even a loss) to grab a big chunk of GPU marketshare and mindshare from rival Advanced Micro Devices.

That was the picture from a panel discussion where a member of the audience made a shocking disclosure the Apple A7 SoC in the iPhone 5s is "a poor man's 3D IC."

Xilinx talked about how it is already shipping 2.5D stacks where die are laid side-by-side on a silicon interposer. So far it has discussed products using multiple FPGAs or an FPGA and serdes on a chip.

The FPGA vendor will describe at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in February a product that puts two 65nm serdes next to an FPGA. It is also said to be working on devices with an ADC and DAC next to an FPGA for use in cellular base stations. So the applications for these relatively high-cost, low-volume products are slowly expanding.

But so far the Xilinx products are consuming less than 200 wafers a month, according to estimates. So what's the path to high volumes of tens or hundreds of thousands of wafers per month? In a word, torturous.

TSMC claims it's a one-stop shop for 2.5D stacks, and Globalfoundries is at some stage of bringing up its own service. Having one neck to choke for a complex technology like 2.5D chips is great, but the foundries are charging a 10x premium. Yikes!

Graphics chip vendors such as AMD and Nvidia would love to put a nice big 3D memory stack on a silicon interposer next to their honking GPUs. The resulting products would have significantly higher performance and lower power, but not enough to justify the 10x manufacturing premium the foundries are charging.

So the industry is at a chicken-and-egg stand still for high volume 2.5D products.

Micron hopes its Hybrid Memory Cube could be the break out product. But it's not clear its high-end customers are the right vehicle. Fujitsu said it will show a prototype board at next week's supercomputer conference using (it is believed) as many as eight of the HMC stacks.

So the technology is real and has users, but not high-volume ones-yet. SK Hynix will show its own version of a memory stack that like Micron's has four to eight DRAM die delivering something on the order of 160 MB/second, so there is competition.

Potential customers say neither 3D memory company is ready to supply high volumes yet. Perhaps they will next year. They are also expected to roll versions that support the Jedec HBM interface for graphics processors. The question, again, comes down to price.

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