A joint venture between Intel and Micron Technology is preparing to mass-produce a 32-gigabit memory chip featuring Intel's multi-level cell memory technology. The new NAND chips to be manufactured by IM Flash Technologies will go up against similar products from rivals Samsung and Toshiba, beginning next year.
Developed and manufactured using low-power 34-nanometer technology, the industry's only monolithic 32Gbit NAND chip fits into the industry's standard 48-lead packaging and represents the smallest NAND geometry on the market, the companies said.
"We have made great strides in NAND process capability and are now in a leadership role with 34nm production," said Brian Shirley, vice president of Micron's Memory Group. "The tiny 34nm, 32Gbit chip enables our customers to easily increase their NAND capacity for a number of consumer and computing products."
Less than the size of a thumbnail, IMFT's 32Gbit chip is expected to cost-effectively enable high-density solid-state storage in small form factor applications such as digital cameras, personal music players, and digital camcorders. For example, a single 32Gbit chip could be used to store more than 2,000 high-resolution digital photos, more than a thousand music tracks, or about 20 hours of high-definition video.
The partners said the new chip also will enable the creation of more cost-effective solid-state drives for netbooks and other portable computing devices, dramatically increasing their current storage capacity. When stacked, the chips could even drive PC memory capacities beyond 256GB, they noted.
Unlike standard single-level cell products, IMFT's flash-memory chip employs multiple levels per cell to enable more bits of to be stored. The use of a denser storage method also means the chips will be cheaper to produce.
The chips will be manufactured on 300-millimeter wafers, each of which will produce approximately 1.6 terabytes. The partners say they expect to begin sampling lower-density multi-level and single-level cell products early next year.
A Triple Whammy
On the downside, the NAND flash-memory market is expected to be particularly vulnerable. Research firm iSuppli predicts flash-memory revenue will fall globally by 14 percent this year to $12 billion, and then decline another 15 percent in 2009.
The consumer devices that account for almost 80 percent of total NAND chip demand are mostly sold in retail stores, which have significant bargaining power on pricing -- especially during a market downturn, iSuppli said. Given the challenging situation and the inventory overhang among OEM customers, NAND chip suppliers have no choice but to cut chip prices to increase sales, noted Nam Hyung Kim, chief analyst at iSuppli.
"Unlike other memories, which depend more on non-consumer/non-retail products, NAND flash is bearing the brunt of the challenging retail conditions," Kim said. "Combined with uncertain global economic conditions and a lack of killer applications, the NAND flash-memory business is facing a triple whammy."
Beyond the macroeconomic and structural challenges, the NAND flash industry also is experiencing a fundamental challenge of declining demand elasticity, Kim noted. "With sufficient capacity in their existing flash storage cards and USB flash drives, consumers don't need to upgrade their products and are not as sensitive to price declines as they used to be," Kim observed.