A top engineer from Nvidia Corp. said that as chips become more complex in terms of transistors count and sometimes in terms of physical sizes, the industry will need to move to larger 450mm wafers in order to profitably build those devices. The engineer predicted that by 2020 chips will contain as many as a trillion transistors, or over 232 times more complex than the most complex graphics chip today.
"A diverse host of new technologies and methods will be needed to keep the industry on track to profitably deliver a trillion-transistor device by the end of the decade. [...] The industry needs to move to 450mm wafers to deal with the increasing number of masks and process steps required to make chips," said Sameer Halepete, vice president of VLSI engineering at Nvidia, reports EETimes web-site.
The larger 450mm wafers are supposed to decrease pricing of every single chip located on them, but fabs that can process such wafers will be much more expensive, which will require them to work at 100% utilization all the time to be economically feasible. A number of challenges exist on the route of 450mm semiconductor factories, but with more and more companies engaging into the work, they are projected to be generally solved by the middle of the decade.
With process technologies becoming more complex and harder to implement, it now takes many months to initiate volume production of new chips, whereas windows of opportunities for those chips remain the same. It is crucial to deliver a new graphics processor by Christmas season every year and once companies like Nvidia or AMD fail to do so, they essentially lose money. 450mm wafers allow to produce more chips at once, therefore, can either shorten cycles or leave them in current timeframes.
Another major problem in today's chip design is extreme complexity amid necessity to reduce power consumption while increasing performance. Back in the days, engineers optimized chip designs "by hands", but today it is virtually impossible and special computer programs are used to tune the designs. Those tools will need to get more sophisticated in the future to enable even more advanced chips. Nvidia is currently working with Mentor graphics on appropriate software.
"New process technologies are running out of steam in their ability to lower power because voltages are not decreasing significantly. Thus the next wave of improvements in energy efficiency will come from tools that can suggest optimizations in logic and circuit designs. It is hard for engineers to find more than half or two-thirds of these opportunities," explained Mr. Halepete.