Samsung has a new horse in the never-ending race to make computer processors smaller, faster and less power hungry. In 2024, the Korean tech giant expects to begin manufacturing processors with a second version of technology that its main rivals have yet to deliver as a first-generation approach.
The technology, called gate all around or GAA, is an improvement to the core elements of a processor, the tiny on-off switches called transistors. Chipmakers tweak transistor designs annually, but GAA is an overhaul.
Samsung’s second-generation GAA technology will shrink transistor sizes about 20% compared to the first generation, which the company started using in June, said Moonsoo Kang, the executive vice president in charge of its chip manufacturing business.
Improving chip circuitry is crucial to sustaining computing progress, whether that’s making smartwatches that don’t have to be charged as often, speeding graphics on gaming PCs or building new artificial intelligence accelerators into smartwatches and data centers. But in recent years, that progress has slowed. The cost per transistor is now increasing for companies that want to benefit from the latest chipmaking technology.
“We are heavily investing in GAA technology,” Kang said Monday in a press conference during the Samsung Foundry Forum event in San Jose, California.
The first generation, called SF3E, proved Samsung could mass produce GAA technology, and the second generation, called SF3, will miniaturize it. “By doing that, we also improve performance and power,” Kang said.
GAA offers improvements that should sustain the chip industry for a few more years. “It’s an important technology, and it’s been a long time coming,” said Technalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell.
Samsung’s electronics division designs its own chips for smartphones, data centers, cars and other markets. But a separate division, Samsung Foundry, builds processors for the company and rivals like Qualcomm.
The foundry business has surged during the COVID pandemic as computing device makers scrambled to keep up with new demand for gadgets like phones, tablets and PCs. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Samsung Foundry’s top rival, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Samsung expects revenue from its foundry business to triple from 2019 to 2027.
The semiconductor industry, named for the silicon-based materials that are fundamental to switching transistors on and off, has been on a tear, but intense spending may be tapering off. “Global semiconductor sales growth has stalled in recent months,” said John Neuffer, chief executive of the Semiconductor Industry Association, in a statement Monday.
GAA is a key foundation to processor progress, but it’s not the only one. Intel, which lost chip manufacturing leadership to Samsung and TSMC years ago, hopes to reclaim its leadership by 2024 and surpass those rivals by 2025. Intel’s first gate all around transistors are slated to debut in 2024 with a manufacturing process called Intel 20A.
Intel has another trick up its sleeve with 20A called PowerVia, though. It’s a technology called backside power delivery that splits the jobs of powering transistors and communicating with them to opposite sides of a chip. Today both jobs are crammed onto one side, but backside power delivery should improve chip performance.
Samsung plans to incorporate backside power delivery in its 2026 manufacturing process, Kang said. That’ll come with an improvement to the second-generation GAA technology, a manufacturing process called SF2P.
Samsung Foundry on Monday also added a new “node” to its manufacturing plans, a 2027 process called SF1.4. The company didn’t disclose details about what changes that will bring, but sharing long-term plans can reassure customers that Moore’s Law, while slower, is still moving.