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Semiconductor startup Silicon Box has launched a $2 billion advanced semiconductor packaging fab in Singapore.
It’s a very expensive bet on a new chip packaging technology, but it comes from seasoned entrepreneurs/investors Weili Dai, Sehat Sutardja (both founders of Marvell) and CEO Byung Joon “BJ” Han, a chip packaging veteran.
The facility at the Tampines Wafer Fab Park aims to revolutionize chip manufacturing, develop local capabilities, and boost Singapore’s position as a global hub for semiconductor manufacturing. The 73,000-square-meter factory is equivalent to 15 football fields. It should have 1,200 to 1,400 people when it’s complete, and it has the support of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).
In an interview with VentureBeat, Dai, Sutardja and Han said the company — which they founded in 2021 — found an opening thanks to the latest developments in chip manufacturing and design known as “chiplets,” a term coined by AMD chief technology officer Mark Papermaster.
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As chip miniaturization slows down due the limitations of physics, Sutardja foresaw as far back as a speech he gave in 2015 that a new kind of chip packaging would emerge, where multiple chips would be connected together as one in a single package.
“I was proposing this technology in the ISSCC talk in 2015 for the purpose of building your smartphones, your laptops, everything,” Sutardja said.
He didn’t foresee at the time that AI would require the technology, but that day has come in a very big way.
The rise of chiplets
Those chips and chiplets would be wired together with thousands of metal connectors. Lately, big chip companies such as Advanced Micro Devices have endorsed the use of chiplets in both central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs).
Chiplets are a way to keep advancing chip design in light of the slowdown of Moore’s Law, formulated in 1965 by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore. He predicted technology would progress so that chip makers would be able to double the number of components on the same-size chip every couple of years. And that would improve performance (as dense chips shorten the distance that electrons have to travel) and reduce costs as well.
But Moore’s law has either halted (as suggested by Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang) or just slowed down (as noted by Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger). Part of the reason is that the circuitry just can’t be miniaturized so easily now. The layers for the physical structures are just a few atoms thick now, and the width between circuits is around 5 nanometers, or five billionth of a meter.
Back in 2015, Sutardja saw that the cost of making chips was going up exponentially.
AMD engineers have said whole chip industry is likely moving to chiplets because the manufacturing improvements that have driven the chip industry for decades are diminishing.
AMD tried out chiplets first with its Ryzen processors and now it is adding them to Radeon graphics. With the latest Radeon chips, it targeted the 5-nanometer manufacturing process for the graphics chip and 6-nanometer production for six accompany chiplets that provide fast-access cache memory.
All of those chips are packaged together in the same module so that it is easier to create fast connections between the processing and memory components. Su said the designed helped achieve the 54% higher performance per watt, 18% higher frequency, 2.7 times peak bandwidth at 61 teraflops, and two times instructions per clock compared to the prior generation.
“The concept of chiplets – building larger systems on chips with modular components produced at scale – allows us to enable chip designers to focus on optimizing for performance and low power consumption in large chip designs, at a cost that is not prohibitive,” Sutardja said. “Silicon Box’s proprietary fabrication method, sets a new standard for design flexibility and electrical performance at low cost. This agility in semiconductor design cycles enables the industry to take advantage of the chiplet concept and bring designs that double computing performance, at up to four times lower costs for graphical processors and high-performance computing chips, and up to half the cost for more widely consumed mobile processors.”
Silicon Box’s solution
These are big dreams for Silicon Box, which has 70 people and is hiring rapidly.
Dai said that Silicon Box’s proprietary fabrication method sets a new standard for design flexibility and electrical performance at low cost.
“Somebody has to put the Lego pieces together,” Sutardja said. “To make AI tech work at high speed and low latency, we really need some new technology.”
Silicon Box is prepared to make huge chips that are more like panels — like the panels for flat panel displays — that can be much as five times as large as a typical silicon wafer. They will have lots of chiplets on them, making them nine times more efficient by using the shortest possible connections across the chips. The goal is to build 9,000 panels a week.
Other tech companies like Cerebras have moved to making huge chips out of full wafers, but Silicon Box is applying such ideas to the chip packaging challenge.
While this Silicon Box factory isn’t expensive to build as a $10 billion to $20 billion wafer fabrication factory, it still has sophisticated technology such as a clean room and expensive packaging equipment.
“It’s expensive as we have to build scale and huge capacity,” Sutardja said. “For the AI applications alone, the requirement is many times what our factory can build.”
Sutardja, chairman of Silicon Box, believes this agility in semiconductor design cycles enables the industry to take advantage of the chiplet concept and bring designs that double computing performance, at up to four times lower costs for graphical processors and high-performance computing chips, and up to half the cost for more widely consumed mobile processors.
Rivals such as Intel have moved to chiplets as well, but Intel doesn’t have the same tech that Silicon Box has, Han said.
“We need to get to scale,” Han said. “We’ll have investors. The tech is successfully developed. The concept is proven. And our cash flow will support the $2 billion cost.”
The company’s interconnection technology aims to solve the unique challenge for chiplets, which are essential to power emergent technologies across areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), data centres, electric vehicles (EVs), mobile, and wearables, Dai said. She said Sutardja and Han had been thinking about the packaging problems for decades.
Silicon Box has formed partnerships globally with industry leaders to enable semiconductor solutions required to power next-generation applications.
The packaging facility will also provide training opportunities for graduates from institutes of higher learning to contribute to the development of radical new technologies. Silicon Box will operate with economically sound processes to minimize the negative effects on the environment, ensuring that its interconnected chiplets are energy-efficient at scale. A fully contained wastewater treatment facility enables 50% of post-manufacturing wastewater to be recycled and reused.
“Silicon Box’s decision to set up its first manufacturing and R&D facility in Singapore is testament to our competitiveness as a critical global node for semiconductors, and a vote of confidence in the long-term growth prospects of the sector in Singapore,” said EDB’s Chairman Png Cheong Boon, in a statement.
Han said that the company doesn’t need $2 billion at the outset, as it will make purchases of equipment over time that fill out the factory as it reaches full production.
“Silicon Box is well poised to solve the unique challenge for chiplets, which are essential to power emergent technologies,” Han said. “Our team of experts with over 30 years of experience, critical ecosystem of partners, and proprietary interconnection technology will shorten the design cycle of chiplets, lower new device costs, reduce power consumption and enable faster-time-to-market for industry partners involved in areas such as artificial intelligence, data centers, electronic vehicles, mobile, and wearables.”
Since leaving Marvell (after an accounting scandal) seven years ago, Dai and Sutardja have become active investors in startups such as MeetKai, a metaverse startup. MeetKai helped create the Silicon Box facility with a digital twin of the site.
“At MeetKai, we are thrilled to have partnered with Silicon Box and have barely touched the surface of what promises to be very fertile ground for enterprise and industrial use cases in the metaverse,” said James Kaplan, CEO of MeetKai, in a statement. “As a disruptive leader in the metaverse space, it gives us great pride to work with a company moving so disruptively in the semiconductor space. Our heavy usage of AI has given us a first hand look at the needs for mass disruption in the semiconductor space. By automating training and monitoring capabilities, we hope to set the groundwork for Silicon Box to scale to many more factories even faster.”
Silicon Box has formed partnerships globally with industry leaders to enable semiconductor solutions required to power next generation applications.
“What the users of tomorrow will expect when it comes to their end experience, whether it is on a mobile device, electric vehicle, or an end application utilizing generative AI, requires fundamentally different approaches to semiconductor manufacturing such as the advanced panel level packaging technology in which Silicon Box stands at the forefront,” said Dai.
She believes this is the first of many facilities.
“The Singapore factory is just the beginning, the flagship, but the whole world is moving forward with advanced packaging,” Dai said.
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