Freescale leaps ahead in MRAM race

July 11, 2006 – Freescale Semiconductor has broken away from the pack in the race to commercialize magnetoresistive random access memory, or MRAM.

The Austin, Texas-based company announced on Monday that it is in volume production of the world’s first commercially available MRAM chip. The chip is intended to combine at least three qualities that previously had been unavailable together.

“For the first time, we have a semiconductor memory with fast read-write, non-volatility and unlimited read and write times,” said Saied Tehrani, director of MRAM technology for Freescale, a Motorola spin-off. “We’ve never had all those characteristics together on one chip before.”

Tehrani said initial markets for the new chip, the MR2A16A, will include printing, gaming, home-security and networking systems. The device’s non-volatile memory will be valuable in systems that have data-logging capabilities and must be re-set to previous configurations, he said. Additional opportunities include using MRAM as cache memory for larger density memories and, eventually, “instant on” capabilities for a wide range of devices. “Your device would no longer have to boot up,” Tehrani says. “It would always be ready in the correct configuration.”

Further advantages are that MRAM can be manufactured as a single-component system on a chip, doing away with multiple component configurations such as SRAM powered by batteries. Freescale’s MRAM can also be integrated with existing CMOS processes.

Will Strauss, president of semiconductor analysis firm Forward Concepts, calls MRAM the “Holy Grail” of computer memory. In addition to MRAM’s speed, non-volatility and endurance, Strauss says integration with CMOS is critical. “We’ve always thought MRAM was going to be great,” Strauss said. “The breakthrough here is you can stack it on top of your processors.”

Bob Merritt of Semico Research called the product announcement a major milestone. He said commercially available MRAM — even in smaller configurations such as Freescale’s initial 4-Mb chip — represents the next step in moving computer memory toward emerging device designs.

“What we have now [in memory technology] was perfected while the semiconductor industry was supporting box-level computer stuff,” Merritt said. “We don’t live in that world anymore. We are all moving to mobile, portable platforms, without access to wall power, where all data comes from existing wireless connections.”

That future, Merritt continued, will demand memory that is always-available, fast, dense, and, eventually, reprogrammable and re-configurable on-the-fly.

One disadvantage of MRAM — compared to today’s SRAM, DRAM or Flash — is cost. Freescale is pricing its initial 4-Mb MRAM chip at about $25 each for quantities of 1000. However, Strauss and Merritt both see MRAM prices going down as production ramps up, and Merritt says Freescale is doing the right thing by focusing first and foremost on embedded applications rather than going after the commodity-priced volume memory market.

“You have to have something that is approaching SRAM speeds at a cost ratio somewhere between DRAM and SRAM,” Merritt noted. “If you have those two things, and the memory is also non-volatile, durable and can be put on an existing processor, you really have something.” Merritt likes the automotive semiconductor market in particular for the new chip, foreseeing significant growth in the amount of controllers on each vehicle and thus steep demands from the automotive sector for fast, affordable and non-volatile memory.

Richard Gordon, managing vice president of the semiconductor group for Gartner, also liked the prospects for Freescale’s chip, which is being manufactured at Freescale’s 200mm Chandler Fab in Arizona. “If you look at the last big new memory market, NAND Flash, it is now worth $10 billion,” he noted. “It takes about five to ten years to get to commercial market volume, so Freescale is being realistic. They are going after markets that absolutely need the technology, need the robustness of the device and can pay $25 for a chip.”

Freescale announced 40 customers for its new chip, and said it expected sales to complete by the end of the year. In addition to producing embedded processor applications, the company plans to license the technology to partners in the semiconductor, consumer technology, military and networking fields, among others. It has already announced one such partnership with Honeywell.

Merritt expects the announcement to spur efforts by other companies to step up their MRAM capabilities. Companies like IBM, Infineon, NEC, Samsung, Sony and dozens of others, he said, have been working on ways to manufacture MRAM in commercial quantities for many years. Most have been quiet of late, but Merritt thinks Freescale’s announcement may wake up the space.

“You get in a room with all these semiconductor or memory companies, and they all are announcing they can do something better, faster, denser,” Merritt said. “Then you ask who is ready to take customer orders, and Freescale is the only hand that goes up. I think this may generate a lot more interest in commercially-available MRAM.”


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