(Photo: Cnet)A new report alleges Intel is facing difficulties with its 14th generation Meteor Lake CPU. Since this tile-based chip requires tiles from both Intel and TSMC, Intel is allegedly asking TSMC to push back some of its 3nm production. This would give Intel time to prepare its own CPU tile for it, which will cause problems for TSMC. The report contradicts everything that’s been reported lately about Intel’s progress on this front. Therefore, we must take it with a huge grain of salt, as there are some unprecedented claims here. If the guts of the piece are true, Intel could be headed for some very rough waters.
As a refresher, Intel’s Meteor Lake architecture will feature four tiles, or chiplets. There is a GPU, a CPU, SoC, and an I/O tile. It’s been reported that these four tiles will be made on three different nodes. Intel is responsible for the I/O and CPU tiles, which it’s making on Intel 4. The other two tiles will be handled by TSMC. It will fashion the GPU tile on its 3nm node, with the SoC being made on N4/N5. Obviously, for this chip to be in production all four tiles have to be ready to go at the same time. However, Digitimes reports that Intel is behind on its CPU/compute tile. This is according to the translation by Twitter user @retiredengineer. News of Intel having issues directly contradicts Digitimes’ own reporting from just a few days ago. Previously it said “Intel insiders” reported the company was on track with its Intel 4 process. That execution success would have it begin production later this year, to ship Meteor Lake in the middle of 2023.
Digitimes now reports that Meteor Lake has been delayed until the end of 2023. Since it needs TSMC’s 3nm GPU tile, it’s asking TSMC to push back its production schedule. CEO Pat Gelsinger will allegedly be visiting TSMC in August to work this out in person with TSMC’s top brass. The reporting says Intel has initiated an “emergency correction” to its “platform blueprint.”
Here’s where things get really interesting. When Intel and TSMC originally hammered out this massive deal, special status was conferred upon Intel. TSMC bestowed upon the company the title of “heavenly king” as a customer status. Due to the size of the order, TSMC then moved heaven and earth to create capacity for Intel on its 3nm process. This involved creating a second 3nm production line just for Intel’s order. Previously, the company was planning on turning this area into an R&D center. Now Intel is asking the company to delay production at that facility. It says its Intel 4 tile isn’t ready due to “market conditions” or possibly a technical issue. The article states Intel will have to eat all the costs associated with such a delay.
If you thought that was surprising, this next bit is almost surely impossible. It says rather than delay, Intel might just send its CPU design to TSMC and have the company make it. It would use its advanced 3nm process or existing 5mm node for the tile. The notion of Intel outsourcing the fabrication of its own silicon for its core competency would be shocking. It would also hit the company’s reputation. Intel’s biggest goal for the coming years is to regain engineering supremacy over TSMC. The translation says this move would cause Intel to “lose face” but save money. It would also allow Intel time to “catch its breath” and figure out its issues (our translation there). The Twitter translator states that Intel using TSMC for the CPU tile needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt.
This news comes in the wake of a previous Digitimes report about TSMC’s biggest customers asking for delays. It previously reported that Apple, AMD, and Nvidia have inquired about pushing back or reducing orders for 3nm and 5nm wafers. That is due to the recent economic situation though, and is related to the GPU shortage ending. The market is suddenly flooded with GPUs, which is allegedly causing Nvidia to push back its launch schedule for its RTX 40-series GPUs. In the previous reports, the reasons given for delay were related to demand drops, not manufacturing issues, but the two could add up to a one-two punch for the foundry industry in 2023.
If this report is true, it would be a huge hiccup in Intel’s plans, and that’s being charitable. The company has launched an aggressive roadmap to take the engineering crown back from TSMC. To do that it has to execute flawlessly over a several-year timeline. It’s planning on advancing five nodes in four years, after all. Pushing one back could have a ripple effect on all those that following, including Intel 3, 20A, and 18A. However, we will have to wait and see where the chips will fall. It would seem Intel would be better served pushing Meteor Lake back six months as opposed to using TSMC 3nm for it. Capitulation to its main rival seems like it would be harder to withstand reputation-wise than whatever damage is done to Intel’s bottom line if it delays production.