Intel on Thursday announced that it would delay mass production of its 10 nm processors from 2018 to 2019 due to yield issues. The company has claimed to be shipping some of its 10 nm chips in small volumes right now, but due to cost reasons the firm does not intend to initiate their high-volume manufacturing (HVM) at this time. Intel executives also stated that they are confident of their product roadmap and intend to launch Whiskey Lake and Cascade Lake products later this year.

Multipatterning Issues

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, stated during a conference call with financial analysts:

“We are shipping [10-nm chips] in low volume and yields are improving, but the rate of improvement is slower than we anticipated. As a result, volume production is moving from the second half of 2018 into 2019. We understand the yield issues and have defined improvements for them, but they will take time to implement and qualify.”

Intel blames a very high transistor density and consequent heavy use of multipatterning for low yields. Brian Krzanich has said that in certain cases the company needs to use quad (4x), penta (5x), or hexa (6x) patterning for select features as they need to expose the wafer up to six times to “draw” one feature. This not only lengthens Intel’s manufacturing cycle (which by definition rises costs) and the number of masks it uses, but also has an effect on yields.

Intel’s 10 nm fabrication technology relies solely on deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography with lasers operating on a 193 nm wavelength at this time. The company’s 7 nm manufacturing process will use extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography with laser wavelength of 13.5 nm for select layers, eliminating use of extreme multipatterning for certain metal layers. As it appears, right now Intel executives do not consider EUV technology ready for prime time in 2019, so the company’s engineers have to polish off the last DUV-only process (again) rather than jump straight to 7 nm.

10 nm Ramp in 2019

Intel does not elaborate whether it intends to ship (in volume) its 10 nm CPUs in the first half or the second half of 2019, but only says that the company’s engineers know the source of the yield problems and are working hard to fix them. As a result, it is pretty safe to assume that the actual ramp of Intel’s 10 nm production will begin towards the second half of next year.

“We are going to start that ramp as soon as we think the yields are in line, so I said 2019,” Mr. Krzanich noted. “We did not say first or second half, but we will do it as quickly as we can, based on the yield.”

In a bid to stay competitive before its 10-nm CPUs ship in the H2 2019 – H1 2020 (production ramp takes time, bigger processors will launch later than smaller parts), Intel plans to release another generation of products made using its 14 nm process tech. This generation of chips includes Whiskey Lake products for client PCs and Cascade Lake for the datacenter, and both are scheduled for release later this year.

Questions Remain: 10 nm Slip from 2016

Intel’s 10 nm manufacturing process has a long history of delays and without any doubts this transition has been the hardest in the company’s history. Let's do a quick recap.

First Production
1999 180 nm
2001 130 nm
2003 90 nm
2005 65 nm
2007 45 nm
2009 32 nm
2011 22 nm
2014 14 nm
2016 10 nm
2017 10 nm
2018 10 nm?
2019 10 nm!

Intel originally planned to commence shipments of its first processors made using their 10 nm fabrication technology in the second half of 2016. The first rumors about Intel’s problems with the tech started to spread in early 2015 as the company delayed the installation of equipment needed for its 10 nm manufacturing process. Then, in July 2015, the chip giant confirmed intentions to postpone 10 nm HVM from H2 2016 to H2 2017 due to difficulties incurred by multipatterning. Instead, the company promised to release its Kaby Lake products with enhancements and made using a refined 14 nm process (known as 14+ later).

Over the course of 2016 and 2017 we learned that Intel was prepping Cannon Lake (mobile, entry-level desktops), Ice Lake (higher-end client PCs, servers), and Tiger Lake chips on their 10 nm node. We also heard about various problems that Intel faced with its 10 nm technology, but the company refuses to comment on them. The chipmaker did demonstrate a system running a mobile Cannon Lake SoC at CES 2017, with a promise to release this processors late that year. Somewhere along the line, both Ice Lake and Tiger Lake slipped to 2018, which was partly confirmed by the launch of the Coffee Lake CPU made using a revamped 14 nm (14++) in late 2017.

Intel officially introduced the 10 nm fabrication process at IEDM 2017 and said it was on track to start shipments of CNL CPUs in early 2018. In January this year Intel confirmed that they had started to ship Cannon Lake processors in small volumes, but never elaborated. We have since learned that these were CNL-U parts in uninspiring 2+2 and CNL 2+0 configurations, however so far Intel has refused to state who the customer is or where anyone can buy them, despite repeated requests for this information.

Being a very large company, Intel has a multifaceted strategy that spans across product lines and generations. Right now, Intel is battling with yield issues that plague its Cannon Lake product family and the first-gen 10 nm manufacturing process. There are other 10 nm products in the pipeline that are to be made using a refined fabrication technology (such as 10+, 10++). It is pretty obvious that Intel will learn how to improve its 10 nm yields with the CNL lineup, but what remains to be seen is how significantly the delays of this product family affect launch schedules of its successors. Despite Intel's statements, there is outside discussion that Intel could decide to switch right to 7 nm, bypassing 10 nm altogether.

Related Reading

Sources: Intel, SeekingAlpha



View All Comments

  • Cooe - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    "Sure there are products made in 7nm allready, but they're nowhere near as complex."
    What the hell are you talking about??? Flagship GPU dies (Vega 20 in this case) are about as big & complex as chip designs get. All the major 7nm parts so far have been big Kahuna's.
  • jrs77 - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    They're not made in 7nm. Look at the rasterelectron microscope pictures of the so called 7nm processes... they're 14nm in reality. Reply
  • Wilco1 - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    Sure the features of any process as never as small as the number suggests. That's been true at least since 130nm for all processes.

    However the 7nm processes from TSMC/Samsung/GF are definitely more complex and dense than Intel 10nm.
  • name99 - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    Or maybe not. 😀
    To be fair, no one has ever even seen an Intel 10nm chip in the wild, let alone cut one open. For all we know they are full of pm sized transistors and magic fairy dust.
  • Spunjji - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    Current Vega isn't but the test dies they have are... Reply
  • Krysto - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - link

    Intel doesn't even plan to use EUV until 5nm, which given Intel's schedule so far, may happen in 8-10 years. Intel is going to get crushed in the process department over the next few years. Reply
  • lefty2 - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    Great article. Another thing is that 10nm won't clock as well as 14nm++, so even when 10nm gets good yields it's not going to be suitable for desktop CPUs. (Basically, Broadwell over again) Reply
  • GeorgeH - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    A thousand times this. It isn't enough for Intel to get 10nm working, they also have to make it competitive with their 14nm process. We are no longer in the realm (and haven't been for awhile) where making transistors smaller obviously translates into better CPUs.

    Had Intel spent years refining 22nm, there's every possibility that a hypothetical 22nm+++ node CPU could be more than competitive in many metrics with a current 14nm CPU. As Intel continues to make their 14nm process better, they're also raising the bar that their 10nm process must meet and making things more difficult for themselves.
  • haukionkannel - Friday, April 27, 2018 - link

    10nm allows more cores in smaller space! The clock speeds can go down because you have more cores to do stuff!
    Ofcourse games belongs not to that croup of programs, but games Are not important in the big picture...
  • peevee - Monday, April 30, 2018 - link

    Space is not the issue on desktop for a long long time. Reply

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