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Micron foresees next-gen dense flash chips

Posted: 21 Aug 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DRAM? NAND? flash?

The electronics industry has pulled into a conservative phase of economic belt-tightening due to the forces of consolidation and slowing progress on Moore's law, said Micron Technology's president in an interview with EE Times.

The good news is a new class of dense flash chips are coming next year. Farther out on the horizon, an emerging class of next-generation memory chips could open new doors, said Mark Adams.

EE Times: Cisco Systems announced layoffs last week that spooked Wall Street. Are we headed into bad weather?

Mark Adams, Micron: I'm not sure if it's bad weather. It may just be new era of people being cautious and keeping their teams lean. People have pretty good memories of the dark days of 2008. Whether it's through being tighter on headcount and balance sheets or preserving cash, people are being more conservative.

China is not where it was in the past decade. Even though it still has good growth, there are signs of weakening. Europe is less of a concern than it has been, but it's still not wildly growingand the same could be said of the US.

EE Times: In the memory sector we have seen reports of DRAM prices spiking up to 40 per cent. What's happening?

Adams: I think the DRAM business has corrected itself. It was in a pretty bad place for a while before it started to turn in the spring. It's a supply side correction. There's been some consolidation, and our competitors are trying to be more cautious by not adding capacity irrationally.

With notebook and computer demand moderating, people are being cautious and looking at this from a profit and ROI instead of market share perspective. In addition, we are not seeing the heavy government intervention we had in the early part of the decade, so there's not a lot of fresh money around. So we have a conservative supply base investing for lower bit growth against a demand curve that's relatively stable.

There will be no new greenfield DRAM fabs for the foreseeable future. We are hitting something of a lithography wall in DRAM where shrinks are getting tougher and gains are not as attractive, so people are not as financially motivated to invest in new fabs. Also we see planar DRAM [advances] will end in the next three to five years, so you probably cannot get a return on investment in a new planar fab.

EE Times: Speaking of the end of planar, Samsung announced last week its 24-layer vertical NAND flash technology. What's Micron's response?

Adams: We should be sampling our 3D NAND in Q1, and we love the progress we are making. We feel we have a 16 nm product with the smallest die size that will be the most competitive on cost.

Philosophically, we invested in a different segment than our competitors. We are focusing on server, storage and data centre apps. It doesn't mean it won't scale down, but we believe the economics for [mobile] 3D NAND won't give the right return in the short term.

This doesn't mean the end of planar flash. We'll have planar in our portfolio for many long-life apps, but there will be an evolution [towards vertical designs] over the next three to five years.

EE Times: What's the outlook for next-gen DRAM where Micron has invested in multiple technologies? Is it too early to tell which will be the winners?

Adams: I think so. The current memory technology has some legs. We know there's a shift or evolution coming in the future, but I don't know anyone can make a call on what it is yet. We see more segmented markets ahead so the industry may chose a couple different technologies.

We are shifting from a high-volume commodity model to solutions and system-level thinking as memory is generally developing towards applications-specific solutions.

[The new technologies] signal a bunch of change in our industry. We think people with scale will have the ability to invest, and we will have one of the largest R&D budgets in whole memory market.

EE Times: Speaking of scale, how is the merger with Elpida going?

Adams: It's way too early to say how it's going.

The good news is one of benefits of the long bankruptcy process in Japan is we got time to know these folks better. They have very strong development and manufacturing teams, they have good core technology around DRAM, packaging capabilities in the mobile sector and their two fabs are pretty strong.

The data we have suggests [when the merger is complete] we will surpass Hynix as a memory chip maker and trail only Samsung. We will have 90 per cent more capacity in 18 months, in part due to the merger with Elpida. If you take out Samsung's internal consumption, Micron will be the largest provider to everyone but Samsung, and the fact we don't compete with customers is a nice engagement model.

EE Times: Given the current conservative environment, have you drawn up any plans for rationalising the merged company?

Adams: We don't have any plans for rationalisation on the Elpida side. We have a commitment to employ the Elpida team. They have two fabs that generate most of their headcount, and they have a strong mobile team.

EE Times: Last week's Flash Memory Summit reflected what's still a frothy market for NAND. Has the growth peaked?

Adams: It's starting to slow down and mature. Some of the early- and late-stage start-ups are being acquired. There's a lot of M&A in this space. I see consolidation in end systems as well as in the componentswhether it's controllers or software.

EE Times: Web giants such as Facebook and Microsoft have been calling for lower cost flash with relaxed specs for uses such as cold storage. Do they have a clear spec, and will you deliver products for it?

Adams: I wouldn't say they have one defined spec. We are engaged with the datacenter folks, and we're looking at these apps. But we haven't announced anything.

Our view is we are working on a one-to-one customer model. We are not looking for a broad industry spec we can commoditise.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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