[News] NAND Flash Market Landscape to Change?

2024-03-14 Semiconductors editor

With the effective reduction of production by suppliers, the price of memory is rebounding, and the semiconductor memory market finally shows signs of recovery. From the perspective of market dynamics and demand changes, NAND Flash, as one of the two major memory products, is experiencing a new round of changes.

Suppliers are in Constant Motion: Increasing Prices and Adjusting Production Capacity Utilization

Since 3Q23, NAND Flash chip prices have been on the rise for several consecutive months. TrendForce believes that, under the precondition of a conservative market demand prospect for 2024, chip price trends will depend on suppliers’ production capacity utilization.

There have been frequent developments in the NAND flash memory industry chain, with some manufacturers indicating a willingness to raise prices or increase production capacity utilization.

Wallace C. Kou, General Manager of NAND Flash Supplier SIMO, stated that prices for the second quarter of NAND Flash have already been settled down, which will increase by 20%; some suppliers have started to make profits in the first quarter, and most suppliers will earn money after the second quarter.

Pua Khein Seng, CEO of PHISON, believes that further price increases for SSD solid-state drives may significantly reduce market demand. If prices are too high, demand may begin to waver again. He suggested that NAND manufacturers stop reducing production and start meeting demand, rather than allowing low supply and high demand to push up prices.

From the perspective of the industry chain, Samsung’s Xi’an fab has significantly increased its operating rate, and Kioxia is considering adjusting its production reduction plan.

As for Samsung, Samsung Electronics’ NAND Flash fab in Xi’an, China, has restored its operating rate to around 70%, according to a report from the global media “THE ELEC”. In 2H23, Samsung lowered the operating rate of the fab to 20-30%. This is the lowest point for the fab since the decline in memory prices and demand began in late 2022.

The Xi’an fab is Samsung Electronics’ only memory semiconductor production base located outside of Korea, with a monthly production capacity of 200,000 300mm wafers, accounting for 40% of Samsung’s overall NAND output.

Samsung Electronics plans to upgrade its Xi’an NAND Flash fab to the 236-layer NAND process and kick-off large-scale expansion. It is understood that the company will gradually introduce equipment capable of producing 236-layer NAND at the Xi’an fab in 2024.

As to Kioxia, the company recently stated that it will re-evaluate the production reduction plan for memory medium flash, used in electronic devices, implemented since 2022 and ramp up production. Kioxia expects that by March of this year, the utilization rate of its NAND fab will return to around 90%, relying on demand.

However, TrendForce pointed out that the previously predicted quarter-on-quarter increase in contract prices for NAND Flash in 1Q24 is about 20-25%. Although the overall demand outlook for the second quarter is still conservative, NAND Flash suppliers have adjusted their production capacity utilization since late in 4Q23 and early 1Q24.

In addition, NAND Flash buyers have already begun to gradually replenish their inventories in the first quarter. Therefore, the quarter-on-quarter increase in contract prices for NAND Flash in the second quarter will converge to 10-15%.

Market Landscape: Samsung Still Dominates, Two Major Manufacturers May Merge

Currently, the NAND Flash market is still dominated by the five major manufacturers, with Samsung and SK Hynix accounting for the lion’s share.

As per a research from TrendForce on March 6, in 4Q23, Samsung still firmly held the top position in the NAND Flash market, with its market share increasing from 31.4% in the previous quarter to 36.6%; next was SK Group, with its market share increasing from 20.2% in the previous quarter to 21.6%.

Following them were Western Digital, whose market share decreased from 16.9% in the previous quarter to 14.5%, Kioxia, whose market share decreased from 14.5% in the previous quarter to 12.6%, and Micron, whose market share decreased from 12.5% in the previous quarter to 9.9%.

It is worth noting that Western Digital’s plan to merge with Kioxia, which has been in progress since 2021, has not yet been concluded. According to sources cited by a report from Japanese media 47news, the merger negotiations were opposed by a competitor, leading to their termination. Earlier reports from Japanese media Asahi News indicated that both parties might resume merger negotiations at the end of April.

Reportedly, Bain Capital is in talks with relevant companies to restart merger negotiations between Western Digital and Kioxia. If the merger is successful, the newly formed company will control one-third of the global NAND Flash market.

If the merger is successful, the new company founded by Western Digital and Kioxia will have a market share of over 30%, leading to a variation in the market landscape of the NAND Flash market.

Recently, Western Digital has taken action again. On March 5, the company announced that after splitting its NAND Flash business, it will retain its original name and focus on its core HDD business. It also stated that the split transaction is expected to be completed in 2H24.

In light of the announcement, Irving Tan, the current Executive Vice President of Global Operations at Western Digital, will serve as the CEO of the remaining independent HDD company, continuing to run under the Western Digital brand. The current CEO, David Goeckeler, will be transferred to the newly established company in the NAND Flash department and serve as the CEO of the new company.

The news of Western Digital’s divestiture of its NAND Flash business, which has long been plagued by oversupply, has sparked widespread discussion in the industry. However, the company believes that this move will accelerate innovation and bring new growth opportunities. At the same time, due to the independent capital structure, the operating efficiency of the two entities will be higher compared to a unified company.

Outlook: Q1 NAND Flash Industry Revenue May Increase by 20% QoQ

In terms of industry revenue, according to the latest research from TrendForce, NAND Flash industry revenue reached USD 11.49 billion in 4Q23, an increase of 24.5% from the previous quarter.

This was mainly benefited from the recovery of terminal demand due to year-end promotions, and the expansion of orders in the component market by reason of price hikes, as well as the vigorous shipment of bits compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, companies continued to release views that demand in 2024 will perform better than in 2023, and strategic stocking has been initiated.

Looking ahead to 1Q24, TrendForce believes that with the significant improvement in supply chain inventory levels and prices still on the increase, customers continue to increase purchase orders to avoid the risk of supply shortages and rising costs.

Thereby, despite being the traditional off-season, TrendForce predicts that the industry revenue of NAND Flash in the first quarter will still increase by 20% QoQ due to the continuous expansion of order scale, which stimulates NAND Flash contract prices to increase by an average of 25%.

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(Photo credit: Kioxia)

Please note that this article cites information from THE ELEC47news and Asahi News.