U.S. Focuses on Invigorating ‘Chiplets’ to Stay Cutting-Edge in Tech

For more than 50 years, computer chip designers have largely used one tactic to improve performance. It was about shrinking electronic components and packing more power into each piece of silicon.

And more than a decade ago, engineers at chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices began considering radical ideas. Instead of designing his one big microprocessor with a huge number of tiny transistors, they make it out of tiny chips that are tightly packaged to work like one electronic brain. I thought.

The concept, sometimes called chiplets, has gone viral with AMD, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, IBM, and Intel introducing such products. Chiplets have quickly gained prominence because smaller chips are cheaper to manufacture and bundling chiplets can exceed the performance of a single slice of silicon.

This strategy, based on advanced packaging technology, has since become an essential tool in enabling semiconductor progress. And it represents one of the biggest shifts in recent years for an industry driving innovation in areas like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and military hardware.

“Packaging is where the action takes place,” says Subramanian Iyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles who pioneered the chiplet concept. “There really is no other way around it, which is why things like this happen.”

The problem is that packaging like this is overwhelmingly dominated by Asian companies, as is manufacturing the chips themselves. The United States accounts for about 12% of global semiconductor production, but only 3% of chip packaging is provided by American companies, according to industry group IPC.

The issue now puts Chiplet in the middle of US industrial policy decisions. The CHIPS Act, a $52 billion package of subsidies passed last summer, is President Biden’s move to revitalize domestic chip manufacturing by funding the construction of more sophisticated factories called “fabs.” It is believed that But part of that was also to inspire America’s forward-thinking packaging plants to take more of that critical process.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimond said in a speech at Georgetown University in February, “As chips get smaller, the way they are placed, the packaging, becomes more and more important, and we need to do that in the United States. There is,” he said.

The Department of Commerce is currently accepting applications for manufacturing subsidies under the CHIPS Act, including for chip packaging factories. It also allocates funds to research programs specifically on advanced packaging.

Some chip packaging companies are moving quickly toward funding. One of them, Wichita, Kansas-based Integra Technologies, announced plans for a $1.8 billion expansion that it said would be contingent on receiving federal grants. Amkor Technology, an Arizona-based packaging services company that does most of its business in Asia, also said it was in discussions with customers and government officials about a U.S. manufacturing base.

Packaging chips together is not a new concept, chiplets are just the latest iteration of that idea, packing chips closer together (side by side or stacked) while making electrical connections between chips faster. Take advantage of technological advances that help .

“What’s unique about chiplets is the way they are electrically connected,” says Richard Otte, chief executive of Promex Industries, a chip packaging service in Santa Clara, California.

Chips are nothing without a way to connect to other components. This means that the chip must be placed in some kind of package that can carry electrical signals. This process begins after the factory completes the initial stages of manufacturing, which may result in hundreds of chips on a silicon wafer. Once the wafer is sliced, the individual chips are usually glued to a vital base layer called a substrate that can carry electrical signals.

The combination is coated with protective plastic and forms a package that can be plugged into the essential circuit board to connect to other components in the system.

These processes originally required a lot of manual labor, which is why Silicon Valley companies moved packaging to low-wage countries in Asia more than 50 years ago. Most chips are usually air-freighted to packaging services in countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and China.

Since then, the diminishing returns of Moore’s Law, the shorthand for the miniaturization of chips that has driven Silicon Valley progress for decades, have increased the importance of packaging advances. It is named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. In his 1965 paper, he described how companies rapidly doubled the number of transistors on a typical chip, increasing performance at a lower cost.

But these days, building a fab for a cutting-edge chip can cost between $10 billion and $20 billion, so tiny transistors aren’t necessarily cheap. And despite companies in fields such as generative AI needing more transistors than can fit into the largest chip-making machines today, large, complex chips are costly to design and prone to manufacturing defects. tends to increase.

“The natural response to that is to put more in the package,” said Aniloo Devgan, chief executive officer of Cadence Design Systems. Cadence Design Systems software is used to design traditional chips and chiplet style products.

Rival Synopsys said it is tracking more than 140 customer projects based on packaging multiple chips together. According to market research firm Yol Group, up to 80 percent of microprocessors will adopt chiplet-style designs by 2027.

Companies now typically design every chiplet in a package with their own connection technology. But industry groups are working to develop technical standards to make it easier for companies to assemble products from chiplets from different manufacturers.

New technologies are now mainly used to achieve the best performance. Intel recently introduced a processor called the Ponte Vecchio with 47 chiplets that will be used in a powerful supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

In January, AMD unveiled plans for the MI300, a rare product with a massive memory chip that combines standard computing chiplets with chiplets designed for computer graphics. The processor is intended to power another advanced supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with 146 billion chips compared to tens of billions for the most advanced conventional chips. It has a transistor.

AMD senior vice president Sam Nafziger said the company’s bet on chiplets for its server-computer chip business would be no easy feat. The complexity of packaging was a major hurdle, he said, but was eventually overcome with the help of an undisclosed partner.

However, chiplets have been profitable for AMD. Since 2017, the company has sold more than 12 million chips based on this idea, according to Mercury Research, making it the leading manufacturer of microprocessors that power the web.

Packaging services still need other vendors to supply the necessary substrates for chiplets to connect to circuit boards and interconnects. One of the companies driving the chiplet boom is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. The company already makes AMD and hundreds of other chips, and offers advanced silicon-based substrates called interposers.

Intel is developing similar technology and bolstering cheap traditional plastic substrates, an approach favored by some such as Silicon Valley startup Elian. Intel is also developing new packaging prototypes under a Department of Defense program and hopes to gain support for his CHIPs Act for a new pilot packaging plant.

However, there are no major manufacturers in the United States to manufacture these boards, and these boards are primarily produced in Asia and evolved from the technology used to manufacture circuit boards. Many U.S. companies have also exited the business, and another concern is that industry groups hope to encourage federal funding to help substrate suppliers start manufacturing substrates. be.

In March, Mr. Biden announced his determination that advanced packaging and domestic circuit board production are essential to national security, offering U.S. and Canadian companies in these areas $50 million in funding from the Defense Production Act. announced the offer.

Even with subsidies like this, gathering all the ingredients needed to make the U.S. less dependent on Asian companies is a “huge challenge,” said the company before founding a packaging startup called Zero ASIC. Andreas Olofsson, who was a researcher in the field for the Department of Defense, said: “You don’t have suppliers. You don’t have labor. You don’t have equipment. You kind of have to start from scratch.”

Anna Swanson Contributed to the report.

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