Moore’s law will outlive most fab companies

The continued race to the bottom, or in this case to the smallest possible die size, is going to weed out all but just a few foundry players in the next few years. Gartner projects that by the time semiconductor process technology reaches 8 nanometers, there will only be four to eight left.

The discussion was part of Gartner’s semiconductor briefing session in San Jose, where the firm also discussed how the market will grow and change in the next few years. While the market for chips will continue to increase, the number of players will shrink as things become prohibitively expensive.

Moore’s law is defined as doubling the amount of transistors in the same area of silicon every two years. In 2004, the 40 anniversary of Moore’s law, Intel had 592 million transistors on one device. Its largest chips now, the quad core Itanium and Nehalem-EX, will have 2.3 billion transistors, and nVidia’s new Fermi chip has three billion transistors.

If Moore’s Law is projected out to 8nm, there will be 75 billion transistors on a chip at the 8nm technology node. Plus, the process technology will change radically. The days of silicon dioxide or even gallium dioxide materials are likely over

At sub-12nm, silicon may no longer be usable. As the industry gets down to 8nm and 5nm, things like carbon or grapheme nanotubes are needed. Below 5nm, molecular transistors may emerge enabling self assembly. Fabrication plant assembly costs at 8nm will double the cost of 45nm to around $10 billion.

Now who can afford that?

A few very profitable companies with high volumes, said Dean Freeman, a research vice president with Gartner. That means Intel, Samsung, IBM’s alliance (including Globalfoundries), TSMC, Toshiba, Hynix, Elipda and Micron.

But then there are the companies that make the equipment they use to make the chips. If a supply chain firm drops out, the whole group of semiconductor makers built on their products could fall with them.

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