With conventional semiconductor manufacturing technology soon to reach its limit in the NAND flash segment, suppliers of these memory chips are set to adopt 3D production techniques in order to boost the capacity of their devices.
By 2017, nearly two-thirds – or 65.2% - of all NAND memory chips shipped worldwide will be produced using 3D manufacturing processes, up from less than 1% this year, according to a a new report from IHS, a leading market research firm. The share of the overall NAND market accounted for by 3D technology is set to jump to 5.2% in 2014, and then surge to 30.2% of total flash memory shipments in 2015. In 2016, 3D NAND will enlarge its market share to 49.8% – representing about half of the entire flash memory market, as presented in the attached figure.
“There’s widespread agreement that just one or two generations may be left before NAND flash made using conventional planar semiconductor technology reaches its theoretical limit. As lithographies shrink further, performance and reliability may become too degraded for NAND to be used in anything but the very lowest-cost consumer products. Because NAND suppliers are compelled to continue building products with higher densities and lower prices, they will migrate to 3D manufacturing quickly in the coming years,” said Dee Robinson, senior analyst, memory and storage for IHS.
A major factor driving NAND makers to keep improving their products is demand from applications like media tablets and smartphones. These devices are demanding higher capacity and less expensive storage.
Another Dimension of Flash Manufacturing
Historically, NAND flash makers have employed miniaturization (by transiting to thinner manufacturing technologies) to increase the capacity and reduce the costs of their products. With 3D technology, the emphasis shifts away from miniaturization and toward increasing density by layering NAND flash cells on top of each other. This will be the most cost-effective way of pushing NAND to the next level because most of the existing manufacturing equipment can continue to be used, minimizing expenses while maximizing return on investment.
Samsung and SK Hynix, the biggest players in the global memory trade, announced their initiatives in 3D NAND in August during the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, California. The cost differential between a V-NAND solid-state drive and one powered by traditional flash memory will be quite large, IHS expects, which would explain why Samsung is aiming the product first at the enterprise market.
While both Samsung and SK Hynix have previously mentioned internal development of 3D NAND, the timeline for production has moved faster than expected, and the accelerated pace is much quicker than many in the industry had anticipated. Other memory manufacturers, however, have decided to continue with planar NAND for at least one more generation, pushing any 3D plans to a later date. In this group are makers like SanDisk, Micron Technology and Toshiba.
All told, initial production of 3D NAND will be limited, and failure analysis will be difficult because of the multilevel structure of the device. Still, an initial ramp-up of higher-performing products into the enterprise segment will enable suppliers to generate margins and allow processes to mature, IHS believes, even though it may be some time before 3D contributes meaningfully to overall industry bit growth.
At any rate, the 3D race for NAND has already begun, solidifying the timeline for the new technology. NAND suppliers that have yet to address the change are likely to feel pressure to innovate as a result.