A View of the Future for GLOBALFOUNDRIES

GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ first 10 years were marked by significant progress as well as some growing pains, as we chronicled in Part 1 of this series, and by a major pivot in corporate strategy, as detailed in Part 2. In this third and final installment, we’ll look at how GF, with a newfound sense of identity and purpose, is remaking itself to capitalize on the fundamental changes taking place in the semiconductor industry.

by Gary Dagastine

Many people from outside our industry call semiconductors “computer chips.” It’s a term that should perhaps be retired, in light of the fact that semiconductors are increasingly used not only for traditional computing, but in an exploding number and variety of applications in virtually every field of human endeavor where data can be put to good use. Wearable fitness devices, cars that are increasingly autonomous, and voice-activated personal assistants are just a few examples.

These diverse and fast-growing applications require semiconductor solutions tailored to their specific needs. Therefore it is of paramount importance to have the ability to integrate features such as 5G-ready radio frequency (RF) and mmWave capabilities, low power consumption, embedded non-volatile memory, high-voltage capabilities, silicon photonics, advanced packaging, and others, into cost-effective solutions.

As it begins the second decade of its corporate life, GLOBALFOUNDRIES is in an enviable position to serve such specialized requirements, with 15 node-based technology platforms, 14 unique and/or best-in-class application feature sets, and thousands of titles in its intellectual property (IP) ecosystem. Combined, these assets enable GF to offer literally tens of thousands of different application solutions. GF calls this formulation its Innovation Equation, and no other specialty foundry on the planet has anything close to it.

These offerings are being enhanced by the pivot away from extreme scaling that GF CEO Tom Caulfield initiated last year. The pivot has repositioned the company, by shifting resources away from 7nm technology development, and into more comprehensive and intense efforts to bring further innovations to the platforms already in its portfolio. In this way, GF is adding value for clients without introducing dramatically more costly manufacturing processes.

New Markets Bring New Opportunities

As part of its ongoing corporate transformation, GF recently created three strategic business units, each dedicated to serving specific high-growth semiconductor markets. GF defines them as Automotive, Industrial and Multi-market (AIM), Mobile and Wireless Infrastructure (MWI), and Computing and Wired Infrastructure (CWI).

These markets are being driven by megatrends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), 5G communications, and the increased use of electronics in automotive systems, among others.

“As fast as these end-markets are growing now, we believe the opportunities for us in these segments will grow even faster as more and more devices are connected,” said Ted Letavic, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of CWI at GF, who helped lead the development of all three new strategic business units. “Our specialized application solutions are both enabling and benefitting from these developments.”

GF estimates that about $47 billion of foundry business within these markets is addressable with solutions in the space where it plays – at or above the 12nm technology node. Of that total, the AIM business opportunities account for $24 billion, while MWI and CWI represent $15 billion and $8 billion, respectively.

The AIM market segment contains applications such as the IoT, which comprises networks of connected devices in our environment that sense, store, and transmit data. Automotive applications are also included in this segment, enabling features such as advanced driver assistance systems, automotive radar, powertrain control, and many others.

In the MWI market segment, a key driver is the advent of 5G wireless communications. Its lower latency and blazingly fast data transmission speeds are expected to enable universal mobile connectivity, dramatically lower data transmission costs for network operators, and spawn a host of new applications. It is estimated that as many as one trillion intelligent devices will be connected through 5G networks by 2035.

The CWI segment, meanwhile, is driven by the explosive growth in cloud computing and artificial intelligence/machine learning.

Innovative GF Solutions Enable New Applications

Innovation and success in these markets will be driven not by increasingly shrinking semiconductors, but by proven semiconductor platforms that are carefully designed and optimized to deliver specific features and performance.

“For the most part, 7-nanometer-and-beyond technology is irrelevant to these market opportunities, which is a key reason why GF turned its focus away from scaling,” said John Pellerin, GF’s Vice President of Global R&D Operations, and RF and SiPh Technology Solutions. “Other types of innovation that are tailored to specific application are required. We call these domain-specific solutions, and these sit squarely in GF’s wheelhouse.”

IoT applications are a case in point. Typical IoT devices might consist of a sensor with an analog interface, memory for code and data storage, RF capability for data communications, a processor to control the device and process the data, and very likely a battery and battery interface. Most of the time these devices may be in sleep mode, so ultra-low current leakage is a key requirement. Upon being awakened by a signal, however, the device must immediately switch into a higher-performance mode to fetch or store data in memory, process it, and then transmit or receive that data.

An expensive 7nm bulk CMOS logic chip doesn’t offer any practical advantage for handling these disparate functions. However, a system-on-chip (SoC) based on GF’s 22FDX® FD-SOI platform, with embedded MRAM memory and industry-leading RF capabilities, is an ideal solution. The native performance and power-efficiency of the 22FDX platform can be further enhanced with GF’s adaptive body-biasing feature to enable the system to be tuned dynamically, as needed, for higher performance or greater power efficiency. As a result, GF’s clients can more easily and cost-effectively develop novel IoT devices that sip power when quiescent, provide whatever high-performance capabilities might be required, and integrate other necessary features.

Cloud computing and AI inference/training in data centers provide another example of where node scaling may be less relevant, and where GF’s domain-specific solutions are critical enablers. For example, power consumption in data centers is a huge issue: in 2007 they consumed about 3 percent of total U.S. power output, but in 2020 it’s projected to increase to 7 percent. Clearly, every watt counts.

The biggest part of the AI power budget in data centers is moving data back and forth between memory and processors, which is why there is growing use of technologies such as compute-in-memory to reduce both power and latency. GF is developing many innovative solutions that address the issue. One is to reduce the power requirements and boost the performance of GF’s 12LP FinFET platform by adding features like very low voltage (0.5V) and dual-work function SRAM memories. Another is to use MRAM in an SRAM-like operating mode, the goal being to replace 6T SRAM with a memory that has three times the density at lower power.

Silicon photonics is another key enabler for lower latency data transmission and higher energy-efficiency within data centers. GF’s silicon photonics (SiPh) optical communication chips provide ways to significantly increase bandwidth to more easily transmit massive amounts of data, enabling new levels of performance.

Another GF innovation for data centers is 2.5D packaging technology. In one example, GF is working with Enflame Technology on an accelerator for fast, power-efficient cloud-based AI training platforms within data centers. The AI accelerator is based on GF’s 12LP FinFET platform and is co-packaged with other chips in an advanced 2.5D package, enabling Enflame to net the same performance they would get with a more highly scaled technology, but at a lower cost and with more flexibility in product functions.

Employees and Partners are Key

The transformation of GF into a company that is more aligned with the heart and the future of the semiconductor industry hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. GF’s thousands of employees bring technical expertise as well as dedication and commitment to their jobs, day in and day out, and the company wouldn’t be what it is without them.

In addition, GF has built deep collaborations and partnerships with networks of outside experts who provide the specialized knowledge and tools needed to ensure that GF’s clients can quickly, easily, and cost-effectively go from initial idea to finished, packaged, and tested product.

“Simply put, we are truly a collaborative foundry, and through our client enablement organization, we are open to working with any client in any way that best helps meet their objectives,” said Jim Blatchford, Vice President of Technology Enablement at GF. “In my previous roles at other companies, I was a customer of virtually every foundry in existence, so I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk. We understand what clients want, and we see our role as helping everyone, from big players who know exactly what they want from enablement, to smaller clients who need our guidance to tune their technology to address specific end markets.”

Accordingly, GF now has more than 100 ecosystem partners spanning IP, EDA, services such as design/technology co-optimization, and assembly and test. There are more than 3,400 IP titles across all of GF’s technology platforms, from more than 40 IP partners, with an additional 1,000 IP titles currently in active development. Over the past five years, more than 1,500 client designs have been enabled by these ecosystem partners.

GF also has put in place two partner ecosystems to help clients make the best use of key GF solutions. One is the FDXcelerator™ ecosystem to facilitate 22FDX SoC design and reduce time to market. The other is the RFwave™ partner program, an ecosystem of companies who have teamed with GF to help clients use GF’s various RF technology platforms to develop and bring differentiated solutions to market in less time by simplifying design.

Looking Ahead

GF’s first 10 years may have been occasionally tumultuous, and time will tell what the next decade holds in store. But as things stand, GF can look ahead knowing it has a realistic business strategy, a clear view of the market opportunities before it, innovative technical solutions that will ensure its clients’ success, and the human capital and external partners to provide all of the expertise and tools that clients are ever likely to need.