Analysis: Intel, Micron throw down 3-bit NAND gauntlet

August 14, 2009 – In memory, those whose technology is best aligned with cost savings (to both manufacturing and consumers) are in the catbird’s seat, and so it is with Intel and Micron who now have 3-bit/cell multilevel cell NAND in their arsenal.

The 32Gb, 126mm2 device, built by the two firms’ IM Flash Technologies JV using 34nm process technology, is currently being sampled and will be in mass production by 4Q09. IM Flash expects to introduce its 2xnm technology later this year for further NAND shrinkage, according to Brian Shirley, VP of Micron’s memory group, in a statement.

What’s the implication of this announcement? First, Intel and Micron are careful to initially peg it to specific applications such as flash cards and USB drives that require high density and low costs, notes Jim Handy of Objective Analysis, in a report. “They need more experience in production volumes before they will be confident to position it as a chip suitable for the high-write environment of the SSD.” And the cost is the key factor here; NAND has chugged along thanks largely to “extremely fast price reductions” for manufacturing costs at a ~40%/year clip, initially thanks to a transition from single-level to multilevel cell structure, but now a move to more bits/cell.

“Manufacturers who have the lowest cost structure are in a position to profit at prices that would cause losses to their competition,” Handy writes. The new 34nm, 32Gb 3-bit/cell NAND device, he says, clearly “is a move in that direction.” SanDisk and Toshiba have both touted similar devices, now expecting to ship until year’s end, but the IM Flash declaration of a fast transition from 34nm to 2xnm gives it another cost-reduction headstart. This should “cause snags” for other competitors Samsung and Hynix/Numonyx, Handy notes. “By the first part of 2010, manufacturers with 3-bit 3xnm product will be impressively more profitable than their competition.”


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