IBM, UMC ready first 90-nanometer chips

By supplying data necessary to run volume production, Xilinx Inc. could help IBM Corp. and United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) become the first companies in the world to make 90-nanometer (0.9 micron) chips commercially available in the second half of 2003, the companies said Monday in separate statements.

IBM and UMC will manufacture 90-nanometer field programmable gate array (FPGA) chips for Xilinx, a chip designer located in San Jose, the companies said.

Xilinx, which doesn’t own production facilities, aims to begin selling the programmable chips to its customers later next year, according to company spokesperson Andrea Fionda.

IBM plans to manufacture the new product line in volume in the second half of 2003 at its new 300-millimetre chip making facility in East Fishkill, N.Y., according to Rupert Deighton, a spokesperson for IBM Microelectronics, which is a division of IBM. “We hope production will begin in the third quarter,” he said.

UMC, which has already produced a FPGA test chip, intends to manufacture the FPGA chips at its new 300-millimetre fab also in the second half of next year, the Hsinchu, Taiwan, company said.

The new 90-nanometer technology, which measures less than 1/1,000th of a human hair, promises to cut the size of chips by 50 to 80 per cent, according to IBM.

An FPGA chip is “sort of a half-way step” to an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit),” said Deighton. Unlike ASIC chips, which are hardwired, FPGA chips have a programmable part, which offers greater flexibility, he said.

“Many companies like to buy FPGA chips to test or introduce an idea,” Deighton said. “They can tweak the software and make changes that they can’t with ASIC chips, which require them to get it right the first time.”

IBM and UMC are among several semiconductor manufacturers, including Intel Corp., that have entered the race to shrink chip circuitry in an effort to increase the performance and features of their computing products.

Intel is also targeting 2003 for delivery of its 90-nanometer chips. In August, the company released details of how its technology had evolved.

Intel has been using the 90-nanometer process to make 52MB SRAM prototype chips at Intel’s fab in Hillsboro, Ore.

“Up until now, chip manufacturers competing in the 90-nanometer sector have produced engineering samples but no one has gone into commercial production,” Deighton said. “We have received from Xilinx the data, or the so-called ‘tape-out’ information that is necessary for us to ramp up and manufacture chips in volume. ”

Using the new 90-nanometer technology, Xilinx aims to lower prices to under US$25 for a one-million-gate FPGA, representing a savings of 35 per cent to 70 per cent compared to competitive offerings, the company said.

IBM is currently manufacturing Xilinx’s flagship VirtexX-II Pro semiconductor products using a 130-millimetre process on 200-millimetre wafers at its facilities in Burlington, Vt., and on 300-millimetre wafers at its Fishkill fab.

For nearly a decade, UMC has been a primary supplier of high-volume programmable chips to Xilinx.