Memory semiconductors market and technology trends

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Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) organized a conference on Memory Semiconductors: Market and Technology Trends. Memory semiconductors are a foundational and important sub-segment of the semiconductor market. There are various types of memory technologies, such as DRAM, NAND and NOR flash, and SRAM, etc.

According to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics (WSTS), global sales of memory tied for the largest single share of any sub-product at 27 percent of the total market in 2020.

At the SIA conference, the speakers were Craig Stice, Chief Analyst at Omdia, Dr. Rainer Hoehler, VP and GM, Flash Solutions at Infineon Technologies, and Dr. Thomas Boone, VP for Defense and Aerospace at Spin Memory. The session was moderated by Falan Yinug, Director of Industry Statistics and Economy Policy at SIA.

Craig Stice, Omdia, said DRAM and NAND are the high-volume, commodity memory semi-components, working together in a system (such as PC, server, smartphone), but for different reasons. DRAM manages your data, requires power (volatile). NAND stores your data, does not require power (non-volatile). Memory is in just about all electronics.

Craig Stice.

Enterprise (server and data center), PC, and mobile make up 80+ percent of the DRAM and NAND demand. TVs, game consoles, removeable storage cards, automotive, smart speakers, other CE, industrial and medical applications, military, etc., also use memory.

Memory in 2020
In 2020, DRAM & NAND combined revenue reached ~$120 billion. In 2020, the total semiconductor market reached revenue of ~$470 billion. DRAM and NAND made up ~25 percent of worldwide total semiconductor revenue. DRAM and NAND are a significant influence on the overall semiconductor market.

The memory industry is well understood to be cyclical, driven by supply and demand. Most recently, following record revenues in both 2017 and 2018, 2019 was a historical down cycle for both DRAM and NAND as demand grew stagnant, memory bit growth persisted, and inventory levels increased resulting in aggressive average selling price (ASP) declines.

In the memory industry, what goes up, typically comes down, then back up. In 2020, the memory industry bounced back, even during a worldwide pandemic. It takes a lot of infrastructure to support work-from-home, educate-from-home, and entertain-from-home environments. Looking ahead, we expect cycles to continue as strong revenue years is re-invested into capacity expansion.

Reviewing 2020, he said that the year 2020 had been projected to be a rebound year from a disastrous 2019. Then Covid-19 hit! Scares of memory production shut-downs, logistical issues, and demand going stagnant put the market on high caution. Smartphones took the early big hit in demand. ~200 million smartphones were taken out of the total 2020 forecast in early 1Q20. However, memory demand from datacenters erupted due to ‘at-home’ environments.

PC markets flourished as corporate, consumers, and educational markets were upgrading PCs for at-home use. At-home entertainment spiked (TV, gaming). Memory pricing increased in 1H20. By 2H20, the mobile markets had bounced back, PC demand continued to outperform, but the enterprise markets went into an inventory management phase and demand slowed. Memory pricing began to decline in 2H20.

Memory ahead
In the short-term (2021), consumer will see strong home entertainment demand, such as TV, set-top-box, smart speaker, etc. In graphics, there will be strong game console demand (new SSD demand), and GPU demand will be boosted by cryptocurrency mining. In mobile, there will be recovery of smartphone, and continued low/mid-tier priced 5G smartphone launches. In server, there will be recovery of enterprise server, and Intel Ice Lake launch. However, cloud server demand is slower than last year. In PC, there will be strong demand for educational and gaming notebooks. There will be caution for a possible softening in 2H21.

In the mid-term (2022-2024), in consumer, there will be mild correction in consumer device, and continued IoT demand. In gaming, there will be mild correction in game consoles and GPUs. In mobile, there will be saturated 5G smartphone set, and growth in low-end segment from emerging countries. In server, there will be DDR5 replacement demand, and SSD buildout will continue. There will be edge server and AI momentum, as well. In PC, there will be some stability from notebooks.

In the long-term (beyond 2024), in consumer, there will be continued demand of consumer electronic devices. In gaming, there will be multi-year cycle of new game consoles and GPUs. In mobile, there will be replacement demand of smartphones. In server, edge computing and AI momentum will continue. There will be HDD cold storage replacement with SSD. In PC, there will be replacement demand of the enterprise segment, and continued positive momentum of the low-end segment.

DRAM technology and manufacturing
In DRAM technology, DRAM has historically gone through ‘die shrinks’. The printed x/y memory cell pattern on the silicon wafer gets smaller and smaller with next- generation lithography nodes and architectural changes. Next-generation die will bring higher capacity, faster speeds, lower power, etc. There will be more die per wafer, more bits per wafer = better cost per wafer. However, as DRAM moves down the roadmap, next generations are becoming more challenging (longer time between generations), more expensive, and not as big of a cost savings.

In DRAM manufacturing, three manufactures make up roughly 95 percent of all DRAM revenue, namely, Samsung, SK Hynix, and Micron. By comparison, in 2008 the same three made up only ~60 percent of the revenue share. Very volatile markets lead to strong supply growth, fierce competition, and ultimately M&A.
With only three major players, and with DRAM technology getting challenging and longer to get to next generations, DRAM output is much more stable. CXMT will be the new DRAM manufacture starting up in China.

NAND technology and manufacturing
For NAND technology, beginning in 2017, the NAND industry went through a 2D to 3D NAND architecture change. NAND performed die shrinks as far as it could go, so went vertical. Think of it as a single-story home to a high-rise apartment. There was same footprint, but more capacity. These vertical layers create more bits per wafer, better cost, higher capacity (with more layers). Today, the NAND industry is on 96-layer 3D NAND, with 128-layer in early production. There is no declaration of how high the industry can stack, but it will become more challenging to achieve ideal yields.

As for NAND manufacturing, Samsung, SK Hynix, and Micron also manufacture NAND. The three comprise of roughly 67 percent of global NAND revenue. Kioxia (formerly Toshiba Memory) and Western Digital have a partnership, near splitting wafer output. Intel is being acquired by SK Hynix beginning late 2021. YMTC is the new company out of Wuhan, China, but it still has very small output.

DRAM and NAND combined is a $100+ billion industry, but very cyclical and driven by supply and demand. DRAM and NAND make up ~25 percent of the total semiconductor industry. PCs, mobile, and enterprise (data center/server) make up roughly 80 percent of all DRAM and NAND demand.

Overall, the memory industry is expected to continue to grow to meet demand from consumer electronics, hyperscale data centers, AI, IoT, autonomous vehicles. However, technology challenges will only persist in the years ahead. DRAM die shrinks are becoming more challenging. With three manufacturers now making up most of the DRAM output, supply can be more stable and predictable.

NAND has gone vertical, now at 96-layers and moving to 128-layers. DRAM and NAND are a significant influence on the total semiconductor market, either up or down.

Infineon offers unique portfolio
Dr. Rainer Hoehler, Infineon, stated they offer a unique portfolio that links the real and the digital worlds. Infineon offers coin-cell-powered devices, battery-powered devices, memory for power supplies, industrial IoT, drives, smart homes, consumer IoT devices, 5G, and automotives.

Applications rely on safe, secure and reliable memory solutions. There is reliable boot code, secure storage, over-the-air update. The solutions offer instant-on performance, functional safety and security. Compact and low power, features include longevity (15+yrs) and reliability at high temperatures (>125˚C). Infineon serves the automotive, communications, industrial, and wearables segments.

Dr. Rainer Hoehler,

Innovations in memory solutions are enabling emerging applications. These are across automotive, industrial and medical/A&D, and communications domains. Emerging applications require differentiated solutions. The Infineon SEMPER NOR Flash features integrated functional safety and security, and integrated compute core. The serial/parallel NOR Flash features automotive-grade reliability, and high random access performance at low power. nvSRAM combines SRAM performance with power-loss data protection.

The EXCELON F-RAM has NoDelay writes, and 100 trillion read/write cycles. SRAM offers best standby power and lowest SER with embedded ECC. Also, HyperRAM offers low pin-count, and common HyperBus/Octal interface with NOR-Flash. Infineon also offers the Semper Flash architecture, or, the Flash you can trust.

Electronics are pervasive in the real world. Our lives increasingly depend on them. Apps are diversifying, and different technologies and solutions are required. Dependability is the key. Functional safety and security against cyberattacks is required.

Focus on STT-mRAM
Spin Memory is a US company located in Fremont, CA developing perpendicular spin transfer torque magnetic random access memory (pSTT-MRAM). It is developing technology to provide embedded NVM, SRAM, and ultimately, DRAM.

Spin Memory owns a class 100 cleanroom ‘back-end’ manufacturing facility. It is currently developing radiation hardened memory solutions to support US military and space applications. STT-MRAM is inherently rad-hard!

Dr. Thomas Boone.

Explaining STT-MRAM, Dr. Thomas Boone said MRAM is magneto-resistive RAM. STT is spin transfer torque. Electron spin sets free layer polarization. ST-MRAM using pMTJ is latest MRAM generation. Bitcell uses 1 transistor + 1 MTJ, a very dense configuration. There are attributes such as non-volatile, high-speed read and write, high endurance, and easy integration in BEOL, with no impact on FEOL. There is perpendicular magnetic tunnel junction (pMTJ), as well.

The US Government and DoD requires advanced Rad-Hard microelectronics memory for strategic and space applications. STT-MRAM is intrinsically radiation immune. It is useful for space probe and satellite apps. Spin Memory is targeting trusted and assured foundries. Spin Memory is enabling STT-MRAM IP and resources, including CONUS 200mm factory in Fremont, CA. Space-based systems also need a new memory. Spin’s patented IP engineered MRAM is set to challenge DRAM/SRAM.

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