Intel has many challenges in manufacturing processors. But it discovered a new one – dangerous elevator doors – during the development of the Ponte Vecchio, the processor brains used to build the Aurora supercomputer.

Intel personnel were moving a group of processors on a cart when a closing elevator door knocked it over, Raja Kodurileader of Intel’s Accelerated Computing and Graphics Group, said at the Intel Innovation Conference on Tuesday.

He did not say how many were destroyed, but the loss was a shock because they were initial samples used to test performance and look for problems. “Each one of them at this stage is expensive,” Koduri said in an interview. With hundreds of manufacturing steps, it takes months to make one advanced chip.

The elevator door wasn’t just a one-time mistake. It actually exposed a problem that stood in the way of Intel’s efforts to regain its leadership in processor manufacturing: human error.

Ponte Vecchio is a massive processor with more than 100 billion transistors, almost as many as any processor in the business. To make something this big, Intel uses its advanced packaging methods to combine 47 separate pieces of silicon.

But that packaging relied on people, carts and elevators, which are far more flawed than the processes Intel typically uses to build chips.

Creating Meteor Lake: More automation, fewer elevators

In contrast, Intel is using much more automation for the advanced packaging that underlies its 2023 PC processor, codenamed Meteor Lake. Meteor Lake’s elements, called chiplets, will be combined into a single processor at Intel’s new advanced packaging manufacturing facility, or fab, near Portland, Ore., Koduri said.

The Ponte Vecchio processor is designed to accelerate tasks such as scientific calculations, graphics and artificial intelligence. It’s now officially called Intel’s Data Center GPU. Only the Aurora supercomputer is getting the processors now, but Intel plans to sell them more widely starting in 2023, Koduri said. They mainly compete with Nvidia’s new Hopper H100 GPUs.

Supercomputers are important, but Meteor Lake is more important to Intel’s fortunes. Computer processors are one of the company’s biggest product lines, and rivals AMD and Apple have become more competitive.

With Meteor Lake, Intel is building some of the chips with its own new Intel 4 manufacturing process, a key step in the company’s efforts to regain the lead lost to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and Samsung.

But with an advanced packaging technology called Foveros, Intel is also connecting these chips to others from TSMC. Advanced packaging methods allow Intel to improve some processor elements faster while reducing the cost of others.

Ponte Vecchio uses Foveros and another Intel packaging technology called EMIB. When Foveros stacks chiplets on top of each other like pancakes, EMIB connects their ends laterally with high-speed links. EMIB is the key to another Intel processor — its Sapphire Rapids chip coming to servers in 2023.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger holds up a Sapphire Rapids server processor, showing how it’s made of eight “chiplets.” The four central tiles contain processor cores and the four smaller rectangles are high-bandwidth memory.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

When designing the Ponte Vecchio, Intel anticipated packaging problems. But the company was surprised at how smoothly it worked.

“The thing we were most worried about was the advanced packaging,” but the 47 chips went smoothly, Koduri said at a news conference. Problems come from mundane issues like a PCI Express communication system error.

This result helped convince Intel that it could use advanced CPU-critical packages like Meteor Lake.

“It gave us a lot of confidence for higher volume products to do advanced packaging,” Koduri said.

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