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Friday, 9 March 2012

The future of computers: 3D chip stacking

In a few weeks, Intel will release Ivy Bridge, the first mass-produced 22nm parts, and more importantly the first to use 3D “tri-gate” FinFET transistors. These CPUs will be incredibly fast and use very little power, but ultimately they are just another last-gasp effort to squeeze a little more life out of a material and process that will soon hit a wall. Computing is still predominantly single-threaded; throwing more transistors and more cores at a problem will only take you so far.

Fortunately, there’s another maturing technology that should provide a much-needed lease of life to the silicon industry: Chip stacking, or to give its formal name, 3D wafer-level chip packaging. Chip stacking is exactly what it sounds like: You take a completed computer chip (DRAM, say), and then place it on top of another chip (a CPU). As a result, two chips that used to be centimeters apart on a circuit board are now less than a millimeter apart. This reduces power consumption (transmitting data over copper wires is messy business), and also improves bandwidth by a huge amount.

Applied Materials machine in Singapore labObviously, though, you can’t just take a DRAM chip and whack it on top of a CPU. The chips need to be designed with chip stacking in mind, and it takes specialized machinery to actually line the dies up and attach them. To this end, Applied Materials — the company that makes all of the machines used by Intel, TSMC, Samsung, GloFo, and every other semiconductor manufacturer — and A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME) have announced the opening of a bleeding-edge 3D chip packaging lab in Singapore. Built with a combined investment of over $100 million, the Centre of Excellence in Advanced Packaging features a 14,000 square foot cleanroom containing a complete 300-millimeter production line and 3D packaging tools that are unique to A*STAR. The Centre isn’t a commercial fab, however: It’s actually designed as a facility for other companies, such as TSMC or Samsung, to come and experiment with 3D packaging. As far as Applied Materials is concerned, of course, this is an excellent way to demonstrate and sell its machines.

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