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Taiwan Memory Industry to Raise with 5G and AI Era

By Korbin Lan
Published: Mar 30,2020

Is it time for Taiwan's memory industry to catch up with the United States and c South Korea? Perhaps not many people have thought that Taiwan's memory industry may have the opportunity to stand on the leading position in the world, and it is not OEM; it is in the development of technology and applications. It is not delusion but ongoing.

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After years of transformation, Taiwan's memory manufacturer has already possessed the strength to challenge the global leaders, coupled with the help of new applications such as 5G and AI, and there may be a chance for Taiwan to become an industry leader.


Just before the end of 2019, two major memory suppliers in Taiwan, Macronix and Winbond Electronics approved their new capital expenditures. The two companies will make every effort to develop new production capacity and technology in the next few years to strengthen their competitiveness in the memory market.


5G Brings New Opportunities to Niche DRAM and MCP

Although Winbond delayed the installation time of Kaohsiung 12-inch fab because of the low price of the DRAM market, the company is optimistic about the recovery of the memory market in 2020, so it decided to upgrade the capacity and technology process of 12-inch fab in Central Taiwan Science Park(CTSP).


According to the latest capital expenditure budget announced by Winbond Electronics, they will spend about NT$496 million to purchase new R&D equipment for 12-inch fab in CTSP with the goal of improving 20nm DRAM process technology. Plus, with NT$1.188 billion expenditures proved last year, Winbond will invest in total more than NT$1.5 billion next year to increase the technology and production capacity of 12-inch fab in CTSP.



Figure 1 :   5G brings new opportunities to the niche DRAM market, and MCPs that integrate NAND and DRAM are gaining more attention.(source: Winbond)
Figure 1 : 5G brings new opportunities to the niche DRAM market, and MCPs that integrate NAND and DRAM are gaining more attention.(source: Winbond)

However, compared with the current process technology of other major international manufacturers, Winbond's 20-nm technology is still behind the most advanced technology by about one to two generations. For example, Micron, SK Hynix and Samsung all have state-of-the-art processes of 10 nanometers.


But since 2007, Winbond has shifted to the production of niche DRAM and NOR Flash memory, and begun to focus on its technology R&D. Therefore, its current technology and products are self-owned. It may not be prominent in the miniaturization process, and it is more competitive in terms of profitability.


The so-called specialty DRAM is a hotshot in the memory market, especially under the trend of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. This kind of device needs data storage and computing requirements. And not like PC, which most specifications are universal, and requires more customized specifications, so Winbond's products appear very competitive.


On the other hand, the trend brought by the AIoT applications combining the Internet of Things with AI is not only increasing the "quantity" demand for memory, but also a higher demand for chip integration, which is the "heterogeneous integration" continuing to grow. Because AIoT devices require connecting ability, and they also need to have both computing and storage functions. Therefore multi-chip package (MCP) technology, which stacks different ICs together, is receiving increasing attention. The same goes for memory chips


Since Winbond supplies DRAM chips and also has manufacturing capabilities for NOR Flash and NAND Flash chips, it has continued to increase its customization capabilities in MCP products recently, including the low-power DRAM and NAND Flash, and the integration of NOR and NAND Flash. Highlight its competitiveness in the 5G era.


Roots in the NOR Flash Market and Challenge 3D NAND Leaders

Macronix had also gone through the ups and downs in the memory market. It invested heavily in capital expenditure this year. The company said that starting this year, it will invest a total of about NT$8.7 billion to purchase 3D NAND flash memory manufacturing equipment. According to the Macronix, its 48 layers 3D NAND Flash memory will be mass-produced in the second half of this year, 96 layers will be mass-produced in 2021, and 192 layers will be advanced in 2022. At present, Macronix 's process technology has reached 19-nm.


Unlike Winbond, which is still in the DRAM market, Macronix specializes in providing non-volatile memory solutions. Its products include read-only memory (ROM), NOR and NAND flash memory, and MCP solutions.


Since it has also experienced several times of low ebbs in the memory industry, Macronix did not focus too much on high-volume markets. On the contrary, it concentrated in vertical markets such as industrial applications. The quantity requirements in these areas are not particularly high, but an emphasis on stability and durability, where Macronix located. Taking NOR Flash as an example, Macronix focuses on the serial SPI interface. Because it has fewer pins and smaller size, it is favored by modern embedded designs.



Figure 2 :   In the fiercely competitive NAND market, Macronix started slowly but will catch up.
Figure 2 : In the fiercely competitive NAND market, Macronix started slowly but will catch up.

In addition, traditional devices don’t use many NOR Flash memories in their system. But driven by new technology trends such as 5G and AI, high-capacity NOR Flash applications have gradually emerged. So, with the ability of production of medium- and high-capacity NOR Flash has become a big advantage of Macronix. Taking 5G base stations as an example, a single base station at least requires 1 to 2GB. At present, there are not many suppliers in the market that can provide this capacity of NOR Flash. Macronix is the only one in Asia.


As mentioned above, with the advent of the AIoT application era, integrated memory chips are more market-worthy and are the mainstream of future device design. Therefore, in addition to providing NOR Flash memory, NAND products must also keep up. Therefore, Macronix also transferred its R&D power to more competitive NAND Flash products, and its goal is to catch up with the international 3D NAND Flash leaders.


However, comparing with the current technological progress of major global NAND Flash memory manufacturers, the major suppliers have mostly pushed their 2D NAND memory miniaturization process to 16-nm or even 15-nm in 2015. But this specification has been Stagnation until 2019; in the 3D NAND, most of them had reached 20-nm, and the stack is 32 layers. By 2020, it will reach 128 layers.


Therefore, from the perspective of the miniaturization, Taiwanese players have not fallen behind, only in the number of stacked layers, which is about 1 or 2 generations behind the major manufacturers. But what does the number of stacked layers represent? What are the main applications?


First of all, the rise of 3D structures is to overcome the limitations of size and capacity. It is necessary to provide higher storage capacity in a limited space to meet the ever-increasing storage and computing needs of end products. Especially in the current era, where big data application is all about, and it needs storage solutions to be faster and smaller.


Therefore, the more the number of layers stacked, means larger storage capacity. It is an obvious advantage for applications that pursue high storage capacity, especially under the size of limitation.


Currently, 128-layer stacked NAND Flash memories are mainly used as solid-state drives (SSDs), and their capacities are developed in terabytes. Therefore, the main applications will be in PC, enterprise storage, and data centers. After 2021, the number of stacked layers is expected to reach 192, and the starting capacity of a single product will jump up another level.


However, more stacks and more complex structures represent more noise and more unstable electronic signals. These affections on the product are the challenge of reliability and durability. That is why industrial-grade storage products are less in 3D NAND products.


Since Macronix has been in the 3D NAND Flash technology developing for a long time, it has more than 2,400 patents and has a leading advantage in noise-resistance and reliability. Therefore, although it may not have the milage of high capacity at present, from the standpoint of practical applications and overall product line, Macronix 's technical quality is more competitive.


Conclusion

From a system point of view, memory is undoubtedly an indispensable component—no matter what kind of electronic device, it must use memory. Especially in the current era of data-centric AIoT, Memory plays a more critical role in achieving smart applications.


Winbond and Macronix, two Taiwanese memory vendors that have stood in their thirties, are expected to have excellent opportunities. In particular, these two have experienced the turbulence of the memory industry. In terms of their physique and management thinking, they have been very stable and pragmatic, which is a good cornerstone for their future development.


Next, they will compete directly with major international manufacturers. It is bound to be a fierce battle, but with the above conditions and the advantages of Taiwan ’s domestic semiconductor and ICT industry chain, their successes will come true soon.


*Winbond was established in 1987; Macronix was established in 1989.


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