Intel is opening up its manufacturing facilities to third parties, as it takes the further tentative steps toward building a chip-to-order foundry business. The microprocessor giant announced last year that it would build FPGAs for Achronix Semiconductor, and on Tuesday a second FPGA designer, Tabula, said that it would have its chips built by Intel.
In its announcement, Tabula emphasized that it would be using Intel’s cutting-edge 22nm process with 3D trigate transistors. Intel’s manufacturing capabilities are world-leading, with none of the established microprocessor foundries—including TSMC, UMC, and AMD spin-off GlobalFoundries—able to match the company’s process.
Compared to the 28 and 32nm processes offered by the competition, Intel’s 22nm process should offer higher speeds with lower power usage, at lower cost. The company will start shipping its first 22nm x86 processors, codenamed Ivy Bridge, in the coming months.
Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy says that the company has had other foundry customers in addition to the two that have gone public.
The foundry business is a double-edge sword for Intel. On the one hand, having additional customers gives the chip-maker the ability to keep the factories churning out processors even if demand for new PC chips is low. This makes it easier to recoup its substantial manufacturing investments.
On the other hand, Intel’s process advantage is a key part of its competitive advantage: it can build complex chips on a process that’s more refined and more advanced than anyone else in the industry. With the company unlikely to want to squander that advantage, it may find its customer base limited.