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Intel has fallen behind again on its next big chip manufacturing improvement

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Intel spooked Silicon Valley and many of its investors on Thursday, announcing that it had fallen a full 12 months behind schedule in developing its next major advance in chip-manufacturing technology.

In an unprecedented development, Intel said that as a contingency it would use a competitor’s manufacturing facilities if it could not resolve the delay quickly. The company could use “our fabs or somebody else’s,” CEO Bob Swan said on a call with analysts.

Intel’s stock price, which had previously gained just 1% so far this year, plunged 10% in after-hours trading, despite the company’s having announced solid results for the second quarter.

The surprise delay of the chipmaking technique known as seven nanometer brought back bad memories of Intel’s multiyear delay in achieving the previous advance, known as 10 nanometer. (With seven-nanometer technology, designers can fit more transistors into the same amount of space, increasing performance.) Rival Advanced Micro Devices, which relies on Taiwan Semiconductor for manufacturing, was already leading Intel in the race for the next chipmaking advance, but now could gallop farther ahead. AMD’s stock, previously up 30% in 2020, jumped an additional 7% after hours.

Apple, which last month said it was dropping Intel’s chips from its desktop and laptop computers, has also used Taiwan Semiconductor to manufacture its chips.

Intel’s Swan, who took over in 2019 following the 10-nanometer glitches, said the new seven-nanometer technology was not producing enough useful chips to make it economical yet, owing to a defect. “We have root-caused the issue and believe there are no fundamental roadblocks, but we have also invested in contingency plans to hedge against further scheduling uncertainty,” Swan said on the analyst call. Products using seven-nanometer technology would arrive in later 2022 or early 2023, he said.

The chip industry’s once-steady improvements in semiconductor manufacturing gave rise to the famous Moore’s Law, coined by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, which states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. Swan’s announcement appears to be an instance of Intel violating that law. But Swan told analysts the company had developed numerous other technologies to improve the performance of its chips even with the delay in seven nanometer.

On other fronts, Intel did better than analysts expected in the second quarter. Revenue increased 20% year over year, to $19.7 billion, over $1 billion more than the average analyst forecast. And Intel’s adjusted earnings per share of $1.23, up 16% from a year ago, beat the average forecast by 12 cents.

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