To Drive AI, Chip Makers Stack ‘Chiplets’ Like Lego Blocks

To Drive AI, Chip Makers Stack ‘Chiplets’ Like Lego Blocks

Tech News

“Chiplets” can be an easier way to design more-powerful chips, according to industry executives who call the technology one of the most significant advances since the dawn of the integrated circuit more than 60 years ago.

“A huge part of the future of semiconductors is packaging and chiplets,” said IBM head of research Darío Gil in an interview. “It’s just much more powerful than having to design a massive chip from scratch.”

Tech giants including AMD, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. last year formed a coalition to create standards for designing chiplets. Nvidia, which has ridden the AI wave to become the world’s first trillion-dollar chip company, joined later. IBM and some Chinese companies are members too.

Apple’s high-end Mac Studio computer, introduced last year and updated in June, is among the early consumer products using a form of chiplet technology to connect two computing processors. The chips are made by TSMC. In recent months, Intel and Nvidia have each announced chiplet-based customized products.

A typical consumer device such as a smartphone contains many types of chip for functions including data processing, graphics processing, memory, telecommunications and power control. The chips are delicately tethered to minuscule wires and ensconced in a protective plastic casing, forming a package that can be fixed to a circuit board.

With the new chiplet packaging, engineers have found ways to bolt together pre-existing chips, the equivalent of using a few Lego pieces to build a toy car.

Wang Xiaoyang, an executive at Chinese chiplet startup M Square, compared chip designers to creators of recipes and chiplets to pre-prepared ingredients. Chip-design companies can toss together the ingredients they want, “and it’s simple to cook up the dish and serve it right away on the table,” he said in a company release.

The concept is particularly appealing to AI companies that are in a hurry to design chips optimized for the type of calculations used in AI.

Nvidia said its chiplet technology allowed its existing products such as graphics-processing chips to be connected with custom chips designed by companies with specialized needs.

As packing more transistors into a tiny space becomes ever more difficult, the stacking of chips “will be the primary mechanism for continuing to scale chip performance in a cost- and power-efficient way,” Nvidia said in a report last year to the Commerce Department.

TSMC, the world’s largest contract maker of chips, has its own platforms for clients to design chiplet-based products. The company, whose clients include Apple, said it expects its floor space for production in advanced packaging in 2025 to be twice what it was in 2021.

Companies are still working to bring down chiplets’ production cost, with work continuing on how to stitch them together most effectively. Also, chiplets need a different process to verify performance, and they aren’t suited to every function. People in the industry say chiplet designs are a good fit for products such as higher-end Apple desktops that sell for $4,000 and up, as opposed to being the main chips in current mass-market smartphones.

Still, because the cost of designing and making a chip skyrockets for the most-advanced types, it makes sense, when possible, to combine several less-advanced chips using chiplet technology to improve performance.

“Advanced packaging costs more money…but as new silicon gets more expensive, advanced packaging looks more compelling,” said David Kanter, founder of Real World Insights, a semiconductor-analysis firm.

Like most areas of chip making these days, advanced packaging is a subject of U.S.-China competition. The U.S. Chips and Science Act authorized $2.5 billion last year for an advanced-packaging program, while Beijing is offering tax breaks and incentives.

The U.S.-based Semiconductor Industry Association estimated in 2021 that China boasted 38% of global installed capacity in assembly, testing and packaging of chips. Taiwan, which is counted separately, continues to lead in higher-end packaging, but one major Chinese company that supplies Apple, JCET Group, says it can handle high volumes of packaging for leading-edge chipsbased on chiplet technology.

China’s role poses two potential risks for the U.S. While many American companies have been happy to work with factories in China to handle these specialist chip-making roles, the supply chains could be tangled by a geopolitical crisis or another pandemic.

Also, as the U.S. increasingly blocks China’s access to the most advanced chip-making equipment, the country’s strength in packaging could serve as a sanctions workaround.

Some Chinese engineers have been testing chiplet systems to achieve the performance of a single advanced semiconductor, according to people familiar with China’s semiconductor development. China in March released a new domestic standard for chiplets, a move the China Chiplet League said would help the country create a chiplet-technology ecosystem while working with intellectual-property holders at home and abroad.

“From the perspective of China, chiplets could serve as a key solution to break through the bottleneck,” said a March report by China-based TF International Securities.

Write to Yang Jie at

Source link

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments