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Samsung to boost performance of 28nm chips using FD-SOI

Samsung Electronics and STMicroelectronics this week inked a licensing agreement on 28nm fully depleted silicon-on-insulator (FD-SOI) technology. The deal grants Samsung rights to produce chips on FD-SOI wafers using a 28nm process technology developed by STMicroelectronics. The FD-SOI wafers will allow chip designers to get better performance or to cut-down power consumption without necessity to migrate to thinner manufacturing processes .

The agreement, on 28nm FD-SOI technology, includes ST’s fully developed process-technology and design enablement ecosystem. As a result, Samsung will be able get additional customers who already have 28nm designs for FD-SOI wafers, or offer its clients a way to improve performance/cut power consumption of their 28nm designs by 15 to 30 per cent without migrating to a 20nm fabrication process. In addition, Samsung may now offer its services to companies developing ultra-low-power chips with extremely low or now power leakage in idle modes.

ST claims that it is fairly easy to redesign chips for its 28nm FD-SOI process technology.

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At present ST manufactures chips using its 28nm FD-SOI process technology at its 300mm facility in Crolles, France, which is not a big facility and therefore ST cannot serve large customers. Once Samsung implements and qualifies the new process, the two companies will be able to jointly offer manufacturing services on FD-SOI wafers using the 28nm manufacturing technology.

“We are pleased to announce this 28nm FD-SOI collaboration with ST,” said Dr. Seh-Woong Jeong, executive vice president of system LSI business at Samsung Electronics. “This is an ideal solution for customers looking for extra performance and power efficiency at the 28nm node without having to migrate to 20nm. 28nm process technology is a highly productive process technology and expected to have a long life span based on well-established manufacturing capabilities. By adding FD-SOI to our technology portfolio, Samsung provides a full-spectrum of 28nm process offerings for our customers’ success.”

The Samsung 28nm FD-SOI process will be qualified in early 2015 for volume production.

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The FD-SOI wafer technology enables faster, cooler, and simpler semiconductor devices as it allows chips to run at higher frequencies, require lower voltages and leak less power. However, FD-SOI wafers, which are exclusively available from Soitec, are more expensive compared to typical wafers. Many industry players, such as Advanced Micro Devices, decided to drop SOI technology since additional costs and complexity were not paying off all the time.

While FD-SOI at 28nm is a good option in general, the real benefit of the new wafers for “big” chips (e.g. application processors for premium smartphones and tablets) will be realized at even thinner nodes. At present the technology  seems to be just right for chips aimed at very low-power devices that spend a lot of time in sleep mode (and thus chips inside them are in idle mode), such as wearable computing devices, since chips made using FD-SOI need less power to operate and also  leak less power too.

“I would characterize it as an interim step for Samsung until they get to 14nm,” said Kevin Krewell of Tirias Research in an interview with EE Times. “FD-SOI offers power benefits but you don’t get the strength. [The FD-SOI] process does work well for wearables where the idle power is most important. […] Having an efficient sleep mode that doesn’t leak power is ideal. FD-SOI, with its lower voltages than bulk CMOS, could achieve that.”

The 28nm FD-SOI technology could also offer the right balance between costs and power consumption for many small chips aimed at low-cost devices.

“28nm hits a sweet spot, as process and wafer costs go up,” said Mr. Krewell, “Especially in embedded and wearables, expect to see 28nm around for a long time.”

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KitGuru Says: It is hard to say whether a lot of Samsung’s current customers (Samsung’s main customer is Apple) will migrate their existing designs to 28nm FD-SOI just to get between 15 and 30 per cent of additional performance or to cut power consumption in low-power/idle modes. However, thanks to FD-SOI, Samsung might get some new customers or land orders for devices it has not manufactured before, which is a good news for the company. Moreover, Samsung could use the 28nm FD-SOI to make custom chips for its smart-watches or eyewear…

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