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The Speed of Memory Changes: NAND's battles for smaller, faster and cheaper


Small, fast and cheap; words to live or die by in the mobile CE world these days.  How to achieve the ever shrinking crown, that's the strategic question pushing new rushes to next generation nodes, while supply shorts for wafers worry others.

The goal to reach the growing emerging economies' markets is essential to a long-term business strategy but the hurdle is providing the right type of feature-phone or entry-level smartphone that is affordable and appropriate (technologically for signal, apps and features) for the emerging markets.

Simultaneously, it will be important to meet the demands of the wider consumer markets for mature products, not necessarily to dethrone the high-end smartphones, but to provide the right combination of features and capabilities at the right price (e.g., power efficiency, thermal reduction, storage, and multi-tasking to note some of the top billings).

As Michael Sadler, VP of Corporate Development at Micron, was quoted on 4/26/11 by DigiTimes, "For the NAND flash business, it is not Micron's top priority to become the global number one, but instead it aims to achieve the world's lowest cost and fastest time to market."

Who is doing what?  Well, the size wars rage on with Intel and Micron releasing news of their JV US $3 billion, 20nm 300mm NAND flash facility in Singapore to be at full production 2H11, according to recent news releases from DigiTimes. In anticipation of the increasing demand for NAND flash at these architectures and yields, according to DigiTimes 4/26/11, Micron "does not rule out building a second fab in Singapore.  The memory chip vendor also remains open to outsourcing with the aim to cut costs […]."

The Intel-Micron partnership is important to the NAND and wider mobile PC market growth (this market is inclusive of tablets, as we at MarketWatch Quarterly discussed here recently).  As Stacy Smith, CFO of Intel, recently underscored in the recent earnings call here, and commented on here by ElectroIQ, "[…] we've made the decision that for the development fab for 14 nanometer, we're going to make that fab bigger. That gives us the ability to actually, at the early stage of the ramp, move more products to 14 nanometer, take advantage of that process technology leadership, ramp it faster."  While speaking here about a wider set of CAPEX strategies, it is important to note that Intel is acutely aware of and strategically planning how to balance the intense CAPEX numbers of next generation technologies and yields, while showing confidence in the market demand for these architectures.

Meanwhile, Toshiba and SanDisk have surprised the industry on 4/20/11 with the announcement of successful fabrication of NAND flash at the 19nm process technology (see this EETimes Asia article for in depth commentary).  SanDisk reported the following regarding the news:

[…] a 64-gigabit (Gb), 2-bits-per-cell (X2) based monolithic chip made on 19-nanometer (nm) technology, the most advanced memory process technology node in the world. This latest technology enables SanDisk to produce embedded and removable storage devices with the high capacities and small form factors used in mobile phones, tablet computers and other devices.

SanDisk will sample its 19nm 64Gb X2 device this quarter and expects to begin high-volume production in the second half of 2011. At that time, SanDisk will also add 3-bits-per-cell (X3) products fabricated with the 19nm process technology to its product lineup.

The prospects for investment in this ever shrinking world of NAND flash are booming though, recent analysts are reporting forecasts in the double digits, such as this report by DisplaySearch, expecting the mobile PC market to continue to grow (inclusive of laptops, mobile PCs and tablets alike) and find markets based on features, pricing and refresh cycles globally (namely, emerging markets will support purchases of mobile PCs at lower prices while mature markets will continue to migrate to higher-end tablets).

On a separate note, trouble with wafer and source materials due to shortages from the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, are hampering Toshiba's efforts to keep up with NAND flash memory ICs for the upcoming months of May and June as reported here by Electronics Weekly. However, Toshiba is planning to operate its key plants during holiday week to help meet demand, as reported here by ElectroIQ.  These supply problems are not terribly surprising, and the shortages and source material problems are expected to lessen by July, according to many in the industry.

Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Tuesday, 26 April 2011 13:47 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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