GlobalFoundries Signs Qualcomm Deal And Shows Why There’s More To Silicon Than Node Geometry

The rise of pervasive semiconductors GF

We’re closing in on 2022, and silicon is as strategic as it’s ever been, and honestly, probably more. We’ve seen the PC-centric era give way to the smartphone-centric era, PCs show their inherent value during Covid-19 and now we’re entering the age where everything will be connected. Chips run the show from next-generation vehicles to wind turbines to the new “smart” toaster oven on your kitchen counter. 

For that matter, this connected world has new, more special technical requirements for its silicon in terms of power management, embedded memory, photonics and RF/analog. Companies like Apple, Amazon Web Services, and IBM are building custom silicon for these more “fit for purpose” use cases, looking for a competitive advantage in the emerging environments. 

For the industries transformed by this shift, being late to the party can be costly. If you’ve attempted to buy or rent a car in the past year, you’ve felt firsthand the consequences of the automakers not building the right relationships with chipmakers and fabs. Chip shortages have stalled out production in auto factories, with some estimating that the resultant car prices could remain astronomical through 2023. The shortage is not of leading edge products that only represent 25% of global chipmaking, but rather, specialty or lagging edge silicon that represents 75% of total volume. On the bright side, it’s an excellent time to be a chipmaker! 

Have I mentioned that silicon is strategic?

Amidst this industry shift, GlobalFoundries held its annual Technology Summit today, unveiling a boatload of new silicon features targeting fast-growing segments like IoT, mobile devices, automotive, communications, and data center infrastructure. Additionally, the company unveiled a significant new partnership with Qualcomm. Over the last few years, the company has markedly pivoted from striving for bleeding edge process to providing the differentiated silicon that our increasingly connected world calls for (see past coverage of the summit here and here for more strategic context). Let’s dive into all the news and how it fits into GlobalFoundries’ forward-looking strategy. 

New application-specific features pave the way for innovation

GlobalFoundries sees itself as the maker of solutions that “not only meet the demands of today but also for the future,” according to Juan Cordovez, Senior VP of Sales. An estimated 73% of foundry revenue comes from this new semiconductor frontier. At the same time, the industry at large directs most of its spending towards traditional semiconductor use cases and developing the latest, greatest and smallest nodes. GlobalFoundries made a strong argument at the summit for focusing less on node size and more on the application-specific innovations built upon them. That argument is valid and accurate. And when it comes to innovations, there were many. GlobalFoundries is the only chip manufacturer who is publicly and loudly pointing out the unique needs in certain markets and appreciate the effort and education of the ecosystem.

In mobile, GlobalFoundries announced several new 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6e features. The company’s RF-SOI sub-6GHz offerings will now feature a stronger, more reliable 5G connection, providing coverage with fewer “dead zones” and more time on a single charge. Meanwhile, its FDX-RF products promise to improve connections for mmWave 5G devices, with a new fully integrated power amplifier that features a turnkey mmWave test capability. The company’s Wi-Fi offerings have also received an upgrade, with new RF and PA capabilities that promise more robust connectivity and broader coverage for Wi-Fi-enabled devices. 

We also learned that the company’s mobile display offerings now support variable refresh on OLED displays, meaning that devices operate with fast refresh rates and anti-tearing for gaming or, alternately, slower refresh rates for battery savings. 

GlobalFoundries’ mobile audio solutions have gained a non-volatile memory option, which the company says will allow audio amp designers to deliver “more life-like sound quality” with less noise and distortion. Lastly, for mobile, GF shared that its imaging solutions for smartphone cameras now support stacked CMOS image sensors with 200+ megapixel resolution, high-dynamic-range, slow-motion and better power efficiency. Think about what that means to future smartphones, security cameras, and optical sensors for cars.

As a side note, I absolutely love GF’s way of communicating its benefits to the end user experience. This makes it more relevant to more audiences and is true, always a good pairing. 

The most significant piece of datacenter news shared at the summit was that GlobalFoundries’ silicon photonics 45nm platform is on schedule for full technology qualification by the first quarter of 2022. The platform is groundbreaking in that it features the first-ever micro ring resonator (MRR) optical component in the history of 300 mm wafer technology and in the fact that it features both optical components and RF CMOS on one piece of silicon. I would say that silicon photonics are GF’s biggest kept secrets and I analyzed GF’s silicon photonics play here.

GlobalFoundries also took the opportunity to deservedly brag on its FDX line of IoT solutions, which according to the company, have pulled in over $7.5 billion worth of design wins globally. Additionally, the company shared that a new 22FDX+ PDK coming at the end of the year will feature new micro display solutions to support smaller, lighter and more power-efficient AR glasses. FDX appears to be a winner and its interesting to see both Samsung and TSMC try to emulate it.

Lastly, in automotive, GlobalFoundries shared that its 22FDX platform is officially Auto Grade 1 Ready at the company’s fab in Dresden, Germany. You can’t just shove standard silicon inside cars as it needs a higher level of reliability and safety. Along with this, the company shared that it is investing $1 billion into Fab 1 in Dresden and a further $5 billion to extend its automotive capacity worldwide. GF is getting more strategic relationships with automakers and they see that they need direct relationships with fabs. A good, recent example of this alignment was between GF and Bosch on mmWave radar capabilities. You can see the analysis here.

Qualcomm partnership

A crucial part of GlobalFoundries’ efforts to provide feature-rich, application-specific silicon is its commitment and openness to innovating alongside its customers. On that note, the company announced the signing of a new, expanded partnership with Qualcomm. Together, the companies will co-develop advanced 5G multi-gigabit speed RF front-end solutions designed to fit inside the sleek form factors consumers have come to expect of their mobile devices. This is the biggest public testament I have seen of Qualcomm for GF and also indicates the growth of Qualcomm’s RFFE mobile business as it needs more quality capacity. 

Wrapping up

New features grab fewer headlines than the latest, greatest and smallest process nodes when it comes to semiconductor innovation. That’s an unfortunate reality that is skewed from reality. Roughly 25% of the market is leading edge based and 75% is lagging edge or specialty processes, so the focus is reversed from reality.

At Tech Summit, though, GlobalFoundries provided an excellent reminder that there’s more to silicon than node geometry. It’s what you’re able to do with these nodes that matters. Semiconductors are the key to our connected future and will only become more pervasive in the years to come. GlobalFoundries is laser-focused on accelerating this paradigm shift, making sure these chips have the specific attributes they need to support IoT, next-generation mobile devices, automotive and all the connected devices in between.