Intel to complete Fab 42
The technology giant Intel has announced plans to invest £7bn in its production chain and complete the currently unfinished Fab 24 factory in Arizona, USA. The factory will eventually be used to build chips on Intel’s 7nm chip manufacturing process – 7nm is a distance of seven billionths of a metre. This is an impressive manufacturing achievement.
It was initially delayed as technology was not needed up to this point. The current leading standard is a 10nm chip which is more than enough for the technology of the moment and the near future. The 10nm chip is only set to start shipping in the second half of 2017, but Intel are very confident that the 7nm chip will be the next step after that.
However, the Fab 42 facility was always likely to be restarted at some point. Not only is it economically expedient to make use of your pre-built, multi-billion dollar facility, it also sidesteps a lot of political hassle.
The Wassenaar Arrangement, signed in 1996 by 41 countries around the world, is a multilateral export control regime designed ‘to contribute to regional and international security by promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use technologies, thus preventing destabilising accumulations.”
In English, this essentially means that companies have to get permission from their governments to open facilities abroad which are designed to produce weapons or items which could be weaponised. In this case, it is unlikely that the US government would ever be keen on allowing state of the art chips to be produced outside of their purview. Indeed, Intel only operates one semiconductor factory outside of the USA, in China, and that produces 65nm chips which are now out of date when it comes to cutting edge technology.
This constant shrinking of technology is in pursuit of Moore’s Law – the law named for the co-founder of Intel who observed that the number of transistors which could fit in a square inch seemed to double every year. This law has pretty much been adhered to in the years since, but it is already slowing down; the number currently doubles about once every 18 months.
This is a particularly interesting aspect of Intel’s new commitment to Fab 42. It represents the next step in miniaturisation, but how much further can it possibly go? Once you get down into the fine detail of less than 10nm, there is very little scope for halving and halving the size of chips again.
Ann Kelleher, a vice-president of Intel, has said that the eventual successor factory to the 7nm Fab 42 will be announced next year. But what comes after that? The eventual failure of Moore’s Law was always inevitable, but where the computer industry goes after that is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps once we have finally optimised the computer chip, engineering focus will turn to other aspects, such as software improvements or innovation in the field of how humans interact with computers – after all, the classic mouse and keyboard format is decades old by now. How much faster could we interact with computers if they were plugged into our brains, for instance?
We are approaching a technological age which will be fundamentally important in the history of mankind and it will be fascinating to see what happens.