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Why Intel’s latest chip factory news gives us deja vu

Comment Intel puts on a show for its biggest manufacturing announcements, with episodes every few years using a rotating cast of CEOs and US presidents.

Intel boss Pat Gelsinger and President Joe Biden were the latest to join the series, on Friday jointly announcing the chip maker’s investment of $20bn in plants near Columbus, Ohio. The fabs could be operational by 2025 and make chips down to 2nm and beyond.

“This is our first major site announcement in 40 years,” Gelsinger said on on-stage later in the day with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R).

“Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America,” DeWine said.

Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America

Intel has previously wheeled out chief executives and commanders-in-chief to announce the plowing of billions into factories, with the presidents using the events to highlight the bump in manufacturing and jobs for the United States. But the aftermath has been littered with unfulfilled promises and failed goals, partially due to Intel’s sometimes incoherent manufacturing and product strategies.

This time around, Gelsinger has identified manufacturing as a major growth driver, as part of his Integrated Device Manufacturing 2.0 strategy. Intel has promised to expand its contract manufacturing in a meaningful way, fabricating components that use the non-x86 Arm and RISC-V architectures, and signed on Qualcomm, a semiconductor rival, as a foundry customer.

Intel’s latest $20bn commitment will be used to build two plants on a 1,000-acre site that could be expanded to up to 2,000 acres and eight fabs. The site will employ 3,000 folks with an average salary of $135,000, and also bring 7,000 construction jobs to Ohio, DeWine said.

You can’t fault Gelsinger for announcing the factories: his shareholders and the world, amid a chip supply crunch, expect it. But not only should the news be seen in an historical context, it remains to be seen if Intel can meet the promises it laid out for the Ohio facilities.

In 2011, then-CEO Paul Otellini announced Intel was investing $5bn to complete Fab 42 when President Barack Obama visited an Intel facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. At the time, Fab 42 was to make 14nm chips, including smartphone processors, and create 4,000 jobs.

Ultimately, the announcement turned out to be a false promise. Intel cancelled completion of Fab 42 in 2014 after manufacturing woes and blunders in markets including mobile devices. In 2016, Intel laid off 12,000 employees to prioritize its products in the data center and the Internet of Things markets.

In 2017, then-CEO Brian Krzanich repeated the pledge to complete Fab 42, this time repackaged as a fresh announcement with President Donald Trump. Intel said it would invest $7bn to complete Fab 42 to make 7nm chips.

Intel powered up Fab 42 in Arizona in late 2020 to make not 7nm but 10nm chips. That’s the process node that was delayed for years due to critical fabrication missteps, causing Intel to lose its manufacturing lead over TSMC and Samsung.

Chipzilla hopes to do better on its commitments with Gelsinger, who wants to bring Intel back to its engineering roots.

Intel in September broke ground on more factories in Arizona, which carry a $20bn price tag. Work is also underway on manufacturing expansions in Oregon and New Mexico, and overseas in Ireland.

There’s a growing need to commit capacity to foundry customers, and to meet the higher demand for the company’s chips, an Intel spokesman told The Register in an email.

Gelsinger has stressed the “importance of building a more resilient supply chain and ensure reliable access to advanced semiconductors in the US for years to come. Today’s announcement is a critical step in our plans to fulfill these objectives,” the Intel spokesman said. ®


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