NOR Flash makers balance cellphone slowdown with new design wins

July 13, 2012 — NOR Flash memory sales growth may be tapering off in mobile handsets and smartphones, but lucrative embedded applications in the tablet, automotive and industrial markets are picking up the slack, according to the IHS iSuppli Storage Service.

Based on a sample of 55 embedded products dissected by the IHS iSuppli Teardown Analysis Services over the course of three quarters, Spansion Inc. led all NOR suppliers in terms of design wins. The company accounted for more than one-third of the NOR chips in the torn-down devices (see the figure).

Spansion, together with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Micron Technology Inc., offered NOR chips in densities averaging in the hundreds of megabits. The three companies accounted for 53.4 percent of NOR chips in the three subsegments during the period from the third quarter of 2011 to the second quarter this year.

The rest of the market, equivalent to 46.6 percent of the sample, is controlled by companies that produced low-density NOR memory below the 100-megabit level. This group included big players like Macronix International Co. Ltd. and Winbond Electronics Corp., as well as smaller entities like Chingis Technology Corp. and Eon Silicon Solution Inc.

“Used to store small amounts of executable code, NOR flash was traditionally employed in devices like cellphones for fast read operations and random access capabilities,” said Ryan Chien, analyst for memory and storage at IHS. “However, newer implementations of NAND-based Embedded MultiMedia Card (eMMC) solutions that emulate NOR capabilities have resulted in NOR falling out of favor. The percentage of handsets using NOR flash has fallen from 14 percent in 2010 teardowns to less than 7 percent since then, found mostly in Samsung smartphones. However, NOR manufacturers have been proactive in their diversification efforts, borne out by a study of recent teardowns in both wireless and embedded categories.”

Among the most prominent applications for NOR are tablets. Despite the elimination of NOR in the new iPad from Apple Inc., NOR chips were found in several Android alternatives in the teardowns, including the Eee Slate and Transformer Prime from Asus; the Jetstream and Flyer from HTC; and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 LTE and 7.7 from Samsung. Tablet devices from Samsung tended to incorporate the company’s own brand, higher-density NOR flash in multi-chip packages, while other branded tablets preferred discrete low-density SPI parts.

In the automotive space, NOR flash plays an increasing role to address vehicle safety regulations and manage user-comfort expectations. Head units in vehicles from Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Honda each had more than 230 megabits of NOR flash. NOR suppliers include Microchip and Micron for Honda and Toyota cars; Toshiba Corp. for Nissan vehicles; and Spansion for GM and Ford autos.

The other high-potential market for NOR flash is the industrial space. Network-attached storage systems from QNAP Systems and Buffalo Technology use Micron chips, and routers from Ubee Interactive and Ruckus Wireless each include 128 megabits of NOR.

An emerging industrial segment for NOR is the smart grid space, where devices such as feeder protection relays require high-density NOR to help monitor substation power lines. All of the NOR flash in hardware made by Sweden’s ABB Group is from Spansion, while solutions for U.S.-based Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories make use of Samsung and Spansion NOR parts. Samsung NOR is rare in third-party products, whereas Spansion has been aggressive in addressing this growth segment.

Read More in the IHS iSuppli report: NOR Flash Adjusting to a Future Beyond Cellphones.

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