Sony, Toshiba disclose advanced chip fab plans

Sony and Toshiba Monday each announced plans to build advanced semiconductor plants for the fabrication of faster and more complex chips as they look ahead to the next-generation PlayStation video gaming console and other broadband network products.

The two companies each disclosed plans to build cutting-edge factories capable of handling 300-millimeter wafers at a production rule of 65 nanometers.

The latter number refers to the smallest track or gap width on a chip's surface. Sixty-five nanometers is about a thousandth the width of a human hair, and about half the width that most of the world's most advanced semiconductor plants are capable of today. A smaller number means semiconductors can be made physically smaller, because everything can be made to take up less space, or made more powerful, because more can be crammed into a given space.

The companies need such advanced production technology to produce the "Cell" microprocessor, which is being developed jointly by Toshiba, IBM Corp. and Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) to form the basis of the PlayStation 3 video gaming console and other future consumer electronics products.

The chips are being developed as part of a five-year project that began in 2001 and has as its goal a 1 teraflop-class consumer microprocessor. If successful, the result would be a processor that could be fitted into household electronics yet is more powerful than IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer.

Announcing its plans on Monday, Sony said it will spend ¥200 billion (US$1.7 billion) over the next three years. Toshiba said it will spend a similar amount over the next four years in building 65-nanometer production lines. The Sony line will be constructed at the company's Nagasaki plant, while the Toshiba line will be at that company's Oita plant, both in Japan.

First-year investment from Sony will total ¥73 billion, while Toshiba said it plans to spend ¥40 billion this year on initial construction. Both companies declined to provide a schedule for trial or mass production on the lines.

The two companies also said that Sony is considering supporting Toshiba's investment in the new Oita line. However, a final decision on whether to provide funds to Toshiba and on how much to provide has yet to be made.

Separately, SCEI said it plans to move production of the main chips for its PlayStation 2 console to a more advanced 90-nanometer production line later this year. That will enable the chips to be manufactured with 4M bytes of memory embedded on the same silicon as the main and graphics microprocessors, which should result in lower power consumption and improved performance.

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Martyn Williams

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