What’s Next in 3D NAND?

Landscape is changing in vendor base.


In 2018, the industry needs to keep a close eye on 3D NAND as the vendor base is in the midst of some major changes.

The changes involve several partnerships, including the Toshiba/Western Digital and Intel/Micron duos. It also impacts the other 3D NAND players, namely Samsung and SK Hynix.

But first, demand for NAND flash memory remains robust due to the onslaught of data in systems. Last year, though, the NAND flash market was in the midst of a challenging period. Product shortages, supply chain issues and a difficult technology transition were just some of the issues.

As before, vendors are ramping up 3D NAND. 3D NAND is more difficult to fabricate than previously thought. Unlike planar NAND, which is a 2D structure, 3D NAND resembles a vertical skyscraper, in which horizontal layers are stacked and then connected using tiny vertical channels.

The conversion from planar to 3D NAND is taking longer than expected. That’s been the case for the last two or three years.

What’s different is the vendor base. Here’s the latest in a series of events in the arena:

The Toshiba saga
Last year, Toshiba fell into hard financial times and was forced to sell its prized NAND flash memory unit. Over time, Toshiba selected a consortium led by Bain Capital to buy the NAND unit. This consortium includes SK Hynix, Apple, Dell, Seagate, Kingston Technology, and Hoya, along with the Innovation Network of Japan and the Development Bank of Japan, according to KeyBanc Capital Markets.

Surprisingly, the group doesn’t include Toshiba’s fab partner—SanDisk. SanDisk is now owned by Western Digital. Western Digital attempted to block the deal, but it has apparently reached a settlement and will bless the sale of Toshiba’s NAND unit. Western Digital will also remain a fab partner with the new Toshiba NAND company.

Here’s what to watch for in 2018: If the deal does happen, it remains unclear if this venture will succeed. For one thing, the group includes SK Hynix, a competitor of Western Digital. Just how Toshiba, SK Hynix and Western Digital will co-exist remains a mystery, causing some angst in the customer base.

The deal with the group led by Bain Capital is still not completed. It requires regulatory approval and it may unravel. If so, Toshiba and Western Digital may end up partners after all.

The Intel-Micron break up
In January, Intel and Micron ended their long-running NAND joint development partnership. The companies will continue to develop NAND, but they will work independently on future generations of 3D NAND.

The companies agreed to complete the development of their third-generation of 3D NAND technology, which will be delivered towards the end of 2018. That is expected to be a 96-layer device.

Beyond that, both companies will develop 3D NAND independently. Both companies will also continue to jointly develop and manufacture 3D XPoint, a next-generation memory technology. 3D XPoint is made at Intel-Micron Flash Technologies (IMFT), a joint venture fab in Lehi, Utah.

AnandTech, a hi-tech site, presented some reasons why Intel and Micron ended their efforts in 3D NAND. The 3D NAND technology from Micron and Intel is based on a floating gate technology. Perhaps Micron and its new management want to purse a different technology, which is charge trap.

In my opinion, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Intel some day exits 3D NAND to focus on 3D XPoint. 3D NAND is becoming a commodity and Intel is pushing hard to commercialize 3D XPoint.

3D XPoint is making gains, but it has a long way to go before it lives up to its promises. Perhaps it makes more sense to bolster 3D XPoint.

Will China succeed in NAND?
Last year, China unveiled a number of new memory projects, including a NAND venture. One Chinese vendor, Yangtze River Storage Technology (YRST), hopes to develop 3D NAND. It also has several fabs on the drawing board.

YRST has developed 3D NAND, but it is an older-generation technology with questionable yields. It is far behind its rivals.

China is finding that 3D NAND is a hard technology to master. It might be better served to find a partner. Still, the question is clear: Who is willing to hand over IP to YRST?

Samsung rolls
In 3D NAND alone, Samsung’s capital spending outlays will reach a staggering $14 billion in 2017, according to IC Insights. In total, Samsung’s capital outlays are $26 billion in 2017, including 3D NAND, DRAM ($7 billion) and foundry ($5 billion).

That itself should make the competition worry. The competition, though, may be distracted. Many vendors are still trying to sort out their new their partnerships or strategies. So perhaps Samsung gets the upper hand in 3D NAND, at least by default.

Related Stories
NAND Market Hits Speed Bump
Transition from planar to 3D NAND is harder and more time-consuming than expected.
China Unveils Memory Plans
Government and industry are investing tens of billions of dollars, but so far results are mixed.
Fab Tool Biz Faces Challenges In 2017
Outlook strong for some sectors, tepid for others. Consolidation, rising costs of development could take a toll.


realjjj says:

Doesn’t seem that Samsung is gaining. Toshiba/WD should have started shipping 96L late last year. The overall bit growth this year should be maybe around or above 45%, while Micron will likely be above 50%. Intel might be about ready to ship the first consumer SSD with QLC.
Also got a feeling that Micron will build a new fab for 3D NAND , likely announcing it soon as they just can’t do without new capacity- likely some 2D NAND capacity gets converted to DRAM.. Ofc that means output in 2020 or maybe late 2019 and their gen 4 3D NAND.

Curious how fast QLC ramps this year, if it takes off quickly in consumer, maybe that’s what defines the year.

Just some thoughts, could be wrong on some or all.

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