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What the major expansion at Intel’s Oregon research factory means for AI

  • Mike Pearl
4/27/2022

Oregon is one of the main staging grounds for Intel’s big attempt at a comeback.

Intel has a lot of work to do on AI. The company is working to miniaturize its new server CPUs in order to compete with cloud and AI products from competitors like Nvidia — which has come to dominate 80% of the AI-specific processor market. But AI is just one battle in the venerable chipmaker’s war to win back its position of microprocessor supremacy.

Much of that pressure — and excitement — is now focused on Hillsboro, Oregon, a large suburb just west of Portland where Intel’s research factory campus recently underwent a significant expansion.

On April 11, the facility known as D1X received a new wing called Mod3, and an auspicious new name: Gordon Moore Park at Ronler Acres, according to Intel. The new moniker is a tribute to the co-founder of Intel, who prophetically stated that integrated circuits double in transistor density about every two years. That maxim, known as “Moore’s Law,” was proven essentially correct over the course of Intel’s half-century rise. (It’s also, of course, what helps make the rise of artificial intelligence possible.)

Mod3’s 270,000 new square feet of clean rooms came with a $3 billion price tag, a respectable chunk of the $43.5 billion in research funds the company board bestowed upon new CEO Pat Gelsinger who took the helm just last year. In addition to research, Intel is also spending big on manufacturing. A planned $19 billion Intel plant to be built in Germany was announced last month.

The flurry of activity at the Oregon plant surrounds an opportunity for Intel, wrapped in a crisis, shrouded in an additional opportunity, swaddled in yet another crisis.

After years of stiff competition from other chip manufacturers — especially Taiwan’s TSMC — Intel truly lost its perch atop the microprocessor world in 2020 when it had to delay its flagship product. But then came the global microprocessor shortage, followed by the announcement of a tantalizing $52 billion in federal subsidies for American microprocessor manufacturers last year. So with all this research and spending, Intel has positioned itself for a big comeback.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on whatever Intel is about to do in Hillsboro.

So what exactly is this research factory? If you think of each new Intel microprocessor as a type of Coca-Cola beverage, then this facility has historically been used as a large-scale kitchen and mini factory, according to The Oregonian. So a new “recipe” is perfected there, and then bottled in small batches so the process can be repeated at larger bottling plants globally.

In addition to research into the manufacture of new Intel chips, the company is also feeling pressure to devise a process for its other new venture: becoming a large-scale manufacturer for chips designed by others, as outlined in a 2021 Fast Company story. Getting back to our Coca-Cola analogy, Coke is also using its bottling plants to make RC Cola, if that’s what it takes to take on Pepsi.

So far, Wall Street seems to doubt Intel can rise to the occasion. Company stock has tumbled steadily since April of last year. Annual returns are -24.76% — a pretty bleak indicator.

But Moore is essentially the company’s living patron saint. The press materials for the ribbon-cutting also publicize an Intel-produced video about the company’s co-founder, saying “Gordon Moore has done more for humanity than can be measured.” The invocation of the man and his achievements at the ribbon cutting in Hillsboro earlier this month reads almost as a superstitious gesture, meant to ward off any further misfortune.

And, since Intel is the largest corporate employer in Oregon, employing more people than even Nike — and preparing to hire no less than 180 Oregon workers in AI-centric roles by my count — the stakes are high for more than just Intel’s shareholders.