Intel Set to Outsource Select CPU Production to TSMC’s 5nm Process
Market analysts have reported that TSMC is to begin making Intel’s Core i3 chips on a 5nm process later this year, marking the latest in a series of struggles for Intel with its leading-edge process technology at both 10nm and 7nm.
TrendForce says that Intel has outsourced the production of roughly 15-20% of its non-CPU chips to date with most of these products assigned to TSMC or UMC.
Production of Intel’s Core i3 chips will begin later this year on its 5nm process, followed by the production of mid-range and high-end CPUs being produced for Intel by TSMC on a 3nm process in the second half of 2022.
Intel's Rocket Lake-S desktop processors were announced in further detail at CES 2021. Image used courtesy of Intel
While we’ve previously discussed Intel’s ongoing problems with its latest process technologies, this is the first that we’ve heard of Intel having specific plans for upcoming processors with detailed timeframes. It's worth noting, however, that Intel has yet to confirm this information.
An Inevitable Move?
This news is the latest in a long-observed saga of Intel’s woes when it comes to the latest process technologies. Despite the likes of Samsung and TSMC having achieved working 7nm and 5nm process technologies, Intel is still struggling with 10nm.
In short, this is because Intel poured a huge amount of effort into getting to 10nm early before any of its competitors, but was still unsuccessful. Even at this point, Intel has yet to release its 10nm CPUs; they’re set to hit the market later this year.
Meanwhile, TSMC has been awarded for its leadership in 7nm, has brought a complete design infrastructure to market for 5nm, and is steaming ahead to 3nm and 2nm. The company has also recently reported a year-over-year revenue increase of 14.0%, driven largely by strong demand for its “industry-leading” 5nm technology.
Exactly Which Chips Could Move to TSMC 5nm?
If (and at this stage, it is a big if) TrendForce’s analysis turns out to be true, there’s the obvious question of what chips exactly Intel will move to TSMC’s 5nm process.
Intel has been vocal about keeping the production of certain chips in-house. We know, for example, that the company’s new Alder Lake CPUs will stay on Intel’s 10nm process as this was recently confirmed with a demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where Alder Lake was said to be running on an enhanced SuperFin 10nm process.
Timeline of the evolution of TSMC's 5nm process technology. Image used courtesy of TSMC
At present, it’s unclear which architectures the new i3 CPUs will use. By the second half of the year, however, TrendForce reckons that Intel will have at least three competitive microarchitectures in its portfolio, including Willow Cove, Golden Cove, and Cypress Cove.
And while Intel hasn’t confirmed anything yet, it’s not an unthinkable move for the world’s largest supplier of microprocessors to send some of its production to TSMC.
Intel's History of Outsourcing to TSMC
In July 2020, Intel confirmed its plans to outsource the production of some of its GPUs to TSMC and then later doubled down by confirming plans to produce some of its Atom and Xenon system-on-chips at TSMC, too.
From an operations point of view, it would make sense for Intel to outsource some of its entry- and mid-level processors to a third party like TSMC to free up manufacturing capacity for its higher-end CPUs, such as the Xenon Ice Lake, Tiger Lake-H, and the upcoming Alder Lake processors using its 10nm process technologies at its in-house fabs.
One of Intel's microprocessor fabs in Chandler, Arizona. Image used courtesy of Nathan Frandino and Reuters
Most recently, Reuters reported that Intel plans to outsource its second-gen of GPUs for personal computers, dubbed DG2, on TSMC's 7nm process. Meanwhile, production of entry-level chips could be sent by Intel to TSMC, which is set to begin production at its Arizona-based fab by 2024.