GlobalFoundries Fab 8 will reportedly become a second domestic source for Apple's Ax series SoCs

As archrival Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KSC:005930) has ratcheted up the price of its chipmaking contracts with Apple, Inc. (AAPL) it's been no big secret that Apple has been looking for a new semiconductor fab partner to make the system-on-a-chip (SoC) processors that power its iPhone and iPad.  Now a new player -- former Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) spinoff GlobalFoundries -- is rumored to be gunning for a share of the lucrative contracts for Apple's SoCs.
I. After All the Rumors Apple is Still Stuck With Samsung
Apple designs its own chips in house, licensing instruction sets from ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM) and GPU cores from Imagination Technologies Group plc (LON:IMG).  The company made waves on September 10 when it announced the iPhone 5S, which was powered by the first smartphone-geared 64-bit ARM CPU, the Apple A7.

Apple A7
Apple A7
The Apple A7 -- the brains of the iPhone 5S -- is produced by Samsung Electronics.
[Image Source: iFixit (bottom), Cult of Mac (top)]

Given Apple's ongoing legal strife with Samsung, it's pretty clear why the pair might want a divorce.  Since 2011 it's been regularly reported that Apple was looking to dump Samsung and turn to a different third party fab for its SoCs.  Rumors have mostly focused on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2330) (TSMC), one of the world's biggest chipmakers.  
However, time and time again these reports have never come to fruition.  It is unknown whether this is due to difficulties in the pair's financial negotiations, issues with TSMC's test runs, or some other issue.  It was rumored that Apple was offended that TSMC refused to grant it "favored" status over Android OEMs.
In June The Wall Street Journal became the latest to claim that TSMC and Apple had inked a major deal to tentatively transfer "part" of the production of at-the-time unnamed next-generation SoC to fabs in Taiwan.  But to date all of the A7 chips on the market so far are believed to have been produced at Samsung's Austin, Texas fab -- the same place past generations have been produced.

Samsung Austin Texas
An artist's depiction of Samsung Electronics' Austin, Tex. fab: The 28 nm fab is located near facilities for Texas Instruments and Apple. [Image Source: Let's Go Digital]
Now there's a new face in the Apple SoC rumor mill -- GlobalFoundries.

Apple's latest exploratory efforts are rumored to be taking it to Malta -- a city located just north of Albany in upstate New York.  Apple is exploring a test-run of Ax series SoCs on GlobalFoundries's Malta, N.Y.-based Fab 8 lines, according to a report in Times Union.
Malta NY
[Image Source: Town Maps USA]
Fab 8 is a relatively new facility.  Construction on the fabrication plant began in 2009, shortly after the spinoff from AMD.  Preliminary tooling and cleaning rooms were added in 2011, and the fab has been slowly creeping towards its final volume targets ever since.  GlobalFoundries intends for the fab to eventually reach production levels of 60,000 wafers (300 mm) per month.

Fab 8
Assuming perfect yields, a 300 mm wafer could contain up to 600 A7 chips (using this calculator to estimate).  Of course real world defect rates (at best) are 3-7 chips per wafer [source] so that's more likely 480 to 540 chips per wafer, assuming a relatively good 80-90 percent yield rate for working chips.

GlobalFoundries Fab 8
A 300 mm test wafer produced at Fab 8 [Image Source: Times Union]

What does all that mean?  If all goes well the Fab 8 facility could supply Apple with over 32 million SoCs per month -- more than it needs.

But it appears that Samsung will continue to at least be partially involved in the process.  Samsung has already worked closely with GlobalFoundries to develop semiconductor fabrications processes.  Samsung, GlobalFoundries, and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) have formed an alliance for technology development called "The Common Platform Group".

GlobalFoundries Fab8 wide view
Fab 8 (seen here in a wide angle shot) is "synced" to Samsung's 28 nm process. [Image Source: Times Union]

Samsung reportedly is sending engineers with its "recipes" for Apple Ax series SoCs to the Malta fab, helping to set it up based on the lessons learned at the Austin, Texas facility.  If true, this would indicate that Samsung is confident that Apple will continue to lean on its Austin, Texas fab for most of its chip orders and/or Samsung is somehow earning a cut of the GlobalFoundries Fab 8 fees.

GlobalFoundries Fab 8 entrance
A visitor entrance at Fab 8 [Image Source: Times Union]

While GlobalFoundries later denied this, Times Union's sources claim that Samsung and GlobalFoundries are collaborating at the so-called "Fab 8.1", a facility also known as the Tech Design Center (TDC).  Located on the same campus as Fab 8, this $2B USD, 565,000 square foot facility is scheduled for completion in 2014.  GlobalFoundries has already announced that it will use the facility to test and perfect the processes it uses for manufacturing various chips, before scaling them up to production at the main Fab 8 lines.

II. Senator Says That GlobalFoundries Wants Apple's Business

The Saratogian in July quoted Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D- N.Y.) as saying:

GlobalFoundries CEO Ajit Manocha visited me several months ago to talk about developing a stronger relationship with Apple as it looks for more 'Made in America' opportunities, and I have been urging Apple to consider developing a manufacturing and research partnership with GlobalFoundries.

Since then, rumors and speculation have been mounting surrounding a possible Fab 8/TDC tie-up.  Such a move would add an additional source of domestic chips for Apple -- and possibly a means of distancing itself from Samsung.

Fab 8 Clean Room
Still, Samsung and GlobalFoundries enjoy a very close relationship, so it's unclear just how much of a shift this would be, even if Apple did one day cut orders to Samsung's Austin, Texas fab in lieu of production by GlobalFoundries at Fab 8.  GlobalFoundries' New York staff features a heavy contingent of former Samsung employees.  The fab firm just hired Ana Hunter, a veteran semiconductor executive, who had previously been with Samsung.
The A7 is Apple's latest and greatest SoC.  It is currently manufactured by Samsung Electronics at a large fab in Austin, Texas.  

In 2011, Samsung and GlobalFoundries entered into an agreement to "sync" four of their 28 nm-capable global fabs (including Fab 8 and Samsung's Austin, Texas fab) to allow customers to freely swap orders between any of the facilities.  Financial terms of this arrangement were not disclosed, but are rumored to be in Samsung's favor.  Both Samsung and GlobalFoundries are reportedly working together on a 14 nm platform with FinFET "3D" transistors, which is expected to reach production sometime in 2015 or 2016, based on Samsung's roadmap.
samsung die shrinks
Samsung and GlobalFoundries are collaborating to develop 14 nm transistors. [Image Source: Samsung]

Thus even if Apple produces its Ax series chips on GlobalFoundries' upstate New York lines, Samsung may still pocket a chunk of the profit in licensing fees.

Sources: TimesUnion [1], [2], The Saratogian

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