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NAND competition

Samsung, SK Hynix challenged by underdog Micron’s 176-layer NAND

Nov 16, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

South Korea’s leading chipmakers Samsung Electronics Co. and SK Hynix Inc. are being challenged by smaller rival Micron Technology Inc.’s latest 176-layer NAND flash memory, the world’s highest-density chip.

Micron, which ranks sixth in the global NAND market with 10.2% share, surprised the market last week by announcing that it has developed 176-layer 3D NAND flash memory, the industry’s first, and has begun volume shipments of the product to its clients.

The US chipmaker said the latest chip improves both read latency and write latency by more than 35%, dramatically accelerating application performance across a range of storage-use applications from data center and intelligent edge to mobile devices. Its die size is approximately 30% smaller than best-in-class competitive offerings, the company said.

Advanced NAND flash chip made by SK Hynix

The highest-density NAND chip will accelerate data-intensive environments and workloads such as artificial intelligence (AI) engines and big data analytics, it said. For 5G smartphones, the enhanced quality can enable faster launching and switching across multiple apps, creating a more responsive mobile experience and faster multitasking.

RACE FOR DENSER STACK TECHNOLOGY

Analysts say that Micron’s multilayered stack over the chip’s logic, packing more memory into a tighter space, puts the company three to six months ahead of its competitors, stoking competition among rival chipmakers to develop high-density chips, as most players are focused on 128-layer NAND.

Samsung Electronics, currently the global NAND leader with 33.8% market share, initiated the competition for denser stack technology by unveiling a 24-layer 3D NAND chip in 2013.

SK Hynix, the world’s fifth-largest NAND maker with 11.4% share, also jumped in the race by mass producing the world’s first 128-layer 4D NAND in June 2019. In August of the same year, Samsung said it began supplying sixth-generation V NAND corporate PC solid-state drive (SSD) chips, thought to be using the 128-layer technology.

The chip industry expects Samsung to produce its own 170-layer level seventh-generation V NAND chips in volume in the first half of 2021. SK Hynix is also known to be unveiling a 176-layer 4D NAND chip around that time.

Graphics by Jerry Lee.


COMPETITORS IN CLOSE RANKS


Micron’s ability to execute on the 176-layer technology signifies fiercer competition among NAND players, given that the sixth-largest company’s market share falls behind the second-biggest player’s by a mere 7.1 percentage points. Many latecomers, including China’s Yangtze Memory Technologies Co. (YMTC), are also vowing to mass produce 128-layer NAND by the end of this year.

Local analysts say that the two Korean chipmakers may have already been overtaken by their smaller rival Micron in technology advancement.

“When you talk about the chip technology, higher yields are a key criterion. But when it comes to the stacking ability, you can say Micron is leading Samsung and other bigger rivals,” said Hwang Chul-sung, a materials engineering professor at Seoul National University.

“The government should immediately work out measures to enhance Korea’s competitiveness in memory chip technology by nurturing more semiconductor experts.”

Write to Jeong-Soo Hwang at hjs@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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