Electronics giants Toshiba and Sony are close to beginning trial production of semiconductor chips using a manufacturing process more advanced than any in commercial use today.

The technology is capable of making chips with features as small as 65 nanometres and its development is vital for Sony to produce its planned Cell microprocessor. The chip, which it is developing with Toshiba and IBM, is expected to form the heart of its future PlayStation3 games console and other digital consumer electronics products, but current production technologies are not yet sufficiently advanced to manufacture it in large quantities.

A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre and chip production technology is typically described by the smallest resolution possible. As the resolution gets finer, more components can be crammed on to a chip's surface and that leads to faster chips that consume less power.

Toshiba's trial production of sample chips using the 65 nanometer technology will begin in March 04, said Junichi Nagaki, a spokesman for Toshiba in Tokyo. At that time, the company will turn out system LSI (large scale integrated circuit) chips on a trial line at its Yokohama, Japan, factory and supply them to its customers for evaluation purposes, said Nagaki.

Commercial production of chips using the technology is not expected to begin until the first half of Toshiba's 2005 fiscal year, which is the period from April to September 05, he said.

The trial production plans comes as many semiconductor companies are still in the midst of upgrading from 130 nanometre generation technology to the latest 90 nanometre technology. In early November NEC said it plans to invest ¥60 billion (about £400m) on building a 90-nanometer line at its factory in Yamagata to begin production in late 2004.