According to the latest spot prices for memory from TrendForce, due to the Chinese New Year holiday, the spot market is experiencing a limited number of released quotes and very few transactions for DRAM. The trading momentum in the NAND Flash spot market has also not shown any improvement. Details are as follows:
DRAM Spot Market:
Chinese OEMs are winding down their operations due to the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. As a result, the spot market is experiencing a limited number of released quotes and very few transactions. Sellers’ quotes continue to drive the spot price rally, but there is not much actual demand. Although DRAM suppliers are withholding the amount of products going into the spot market, this has a limited effect in terms of sustaining the rally. The average spot price of mainstream chips (i.e., DDR4 1Gx8 2666MT/s) rose by 0.52% from US$1.922 last week to US$1.932 this week.
NAND Flash Spot Market:
Transaction momentum is not yet revitalized from the spot market, with market activities carrying on from that of last week under the absence of buy orders for retail NAND Flash products. Module houses are currently hoping that promotions from Chinese New Year would amplify order dynamics, which are seemingly quite difficult for the time being. The 512Gb TLC wafer spot stayed flat this week at US$3.437.
During the “SEMICON Korea 2024” event held recently in Seoul, Chun-hwan Kim, Vice President of global memory giant SK hynix, revealed that the company’s HBM3e has entered mass production, with plans to commence large-scale production of HBM4 in 2026.
According to a report from Business Korea, Chun-hwan Kim stated that SK hynix’s HBM3e memory is currently in mass production, with plans to initiate mass production of HBM4 in 2026.
He noted that with the advent of the AI computing era, generative AI is rapidly advancing, and the market is expected to grow at a rate of 35% annually. The rapid growth of the generative AI market requires a significant number of higher-performance AI chips to support it, further driving the demand for higher-bandwidth memory.
He further commented that the semiconductor industry would face intense survival competition this year to meet the increasing demand and customer needs for memory.
Kim also projected that the HBM market would grow by 40% by 2025, with SK hynix already strategically positioning itself in the market and planning to commence production of HBM4 in 2026.
Meanwhile, previous reports have also indicated that SK hynix expected to establish an advanced packaging facility in the state of Indiana, USA, to meet the demands of American companies, including NVIDIA.
Driven by the wave of AI advancement and demand from China, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of South Korea recently announced that South Korea’s semiconductor product exports experienced a rebound in 2024. In January, exports reached approximately USD 9.4 billion, marking a year-on-year increase of 56.2% and the largest growth in 73 months.
TrendForce has previously reported the progress of HBM3e, as outlined in the timeline below, which shows that SK hynix already provided its 8hi (24GB) samples to NVIDIA in mid-August.
Samsung’s latest financial report reveals that the fourth-quarter shipments of DRAM and NAND Flash in 2023 exceeded previous expectations, reflecting an improvement in market demand. Samsung will continue selectively adjusting the production capacity of specific DRAM and NAND Flash products to boost prices.
Samsung Electronics’ memory business is expected to return to profit in the first quarter of 2024, signaling a recovery in the memory industry. Commercial Times reports that due to inventory improvements, Samsung’s utilization rate of DRAM is projected to increase from 70% in the fourth quarter of 2024 to 81% in the first quarter of 2024, and further rise to 89% in the second quarter.
According to industry sources cited in the Commercial Times’ report, Samsung’s fourth-quarter shipments of DRAM and NAND Flash in 2023 exceeded previous expectations. This was primarily attributed to Samsung’s memory experiencing a smaller price increase compared to its competitors, thereby accelerating the pace of inventory clearance, particularly in the case of DRAM, where improvements were more significant.
Samsung is expected to continue selectively adjusting the production of DRAM and NAND Flash products. As the first quarter is typically a slow season for the industry, Samsung anticipates a sequential decline in DRAM and NAND Flash shipments in the first quarter of 2024. However, prices are expected to continue rising.
Due to the destocking of Samsung’s DRAM for eight to ten weeks, it is expected to return to normal level by the end of the 1st quarter of 2024. Meanwhile, NAND Flash inventory is projected to normal level within the first half of 2024.
At the same time, Samsung plans to commence production of HBM3e 24GB products in the first half of 2024, with HBM3e 36GB products slated for production in the second half of the year, with progress ahead of schedule. Additionally, the development of the next-generation HBM4 is currently underway, with samples expected to be released in 2025 and mass production in 2026.
As per sources cited by the Commercial Times, reportedly, regarding HBM3 and HBM3e, HBM3 used in AI servers is still exclusively supplied by SK Hynix, with the highest yield in backend packaging, followed by Micron. Meanwhile, the report also indicates that HBM3e is expected to begin mass production in the first quarter of 2024. Micron’s outsourcing of backend TSV and stacking to TSMC has accelerated the product’s production speed.
From the current landscape of publicly available DRAM technologies, the industry is expected to perceive 3D DRAM as one of the solutions to the challenges faced by DRAM technology, marking it as a pivotal direction for the future memory market.
Is 3D DRAM similar to 3D NAND? How will the industry address technological bottlenecks such as size limitations? What are the strategies of major players in the field?
Understanding 3D DRAM Technology
The circuitry of DRAM consists of a transistor and a capacitor, where the transistor is responsible for transmitting electrical currents to write or read information (bits), while the capacitor stores the bits.
DRAM finds wide application in modern digital electronic devices such as computers, graphics cards, portable devices, and gaming consoles, due to its low cost and high capacity memory.
The development of DRAM primarily focuses on increasing integration by reducing circuit line widths. However, as line widths reach the 10nm range, physical limitations such as capacitor current leakage and interference significantly increase.
To address these issues, the industry has introduced new materials and equipment like high dielectric constant (high-K) deposition materials and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) devices.
Nevertheless, from the perspective of chip manufacturers, miniaturizing the manufacturing of 10nm or more advanced chips remains a significant challenge in current technology research and development. Additionally, the competition for advanced processes, particularly at 2nm and below, has intensified recently.
In an era marked by continuous technological advancements, the semiconductor industry has turned its attention to the evolution of NAND technology. To overcome scaling limitations, transistors are transitioning from a planar to a 3D architecture, increasing the number of storage units per unit area. This concept of 3D DRAM architecture has entered the public sphere.
In traditional DRAM, transistors are integrated on a flat plane. However, in 3D DRAM, transistors are stacked into multiple layers, thereby dispersing the transistors. It is believed that adopting a 3D DRAM structure can widen the gaps between transistors, reducing leakage currents and interference.
From a theoretical perspective, 3D DRAM technology breaks the conventional paradigm of memory technology. It is a novel storage method that stacks storage cells above logic units, enabling higher capacities within a unit chip area.
In terms of differentiation, traditional DRAM requires complex operational processes for reading and writing data, whereas 3D DRAM can directly access and write data through vertically stacked storage units, significantly enhancing access speeds. The advantages of 3D DRAM not only include high capacity and fast data access but also low power consumption and high reliability, meeting various application needs.
In terms of application areas, the high speed and large capacity of 3D DRAM will help improve the efficiency and performance of high-performance computing. The compact size and large capacity of 3D DRAM make it an ideal memory solution for mobile devices. The large capacity and low power consumption characteristics of 3D DRAM can meet the real-time data processing and transmission requirements of the Internet of Things (IoT) field.
Furthermore, since the advent of the AI era with ChatGPT, AI applications have surged, and AI servers are expected to become a strong driving force for the long-term growth in storage demand.
The DRAM market remains highly concentrated, currently dominated by key players such as Samsung Electronics, SK Hynix, and Micron Technology, collectively holding over 93% of the entire market share.
According to a report from TrendForce, as of the third quarter of 2023, Samsung leads the global market with a share of 38.9%, followed by SK Hynix (34.3%) and Micron Technology (22.8%).
Currently, 3D DRAM is in its early stages of development, with companies like Samsung actively joining the research and development battleground. The competition is intense as various players strive to lead in this rapidly growing market.
The goal is reportedly to apply 4F2 to DRAM at 10nm processes or more advanced nodes, as DRAM cell scaling has reached its limit. The report suggests that if Samsung’s 4F2 DRAM storage unit structure research is successful, the chip die area can be reduced by around 30% compared to existing 6F2 DRAM storage unit structures without changing the node.
At the “VLSI Symposium” held in Japan last year, Samsung Electronics presented a paper containing research results on 3D DRAM and showcased detailed images of 3D DRAM as an actual semiconductor implementation.
According to a report by The Economic Times, Samsung Electronics recently announced the opening of a new R&D laboratory in Silicon Valley, USA, dedicated to the development of next-generation 3D DRAM.
The laboratory is operated under Silicon Valley’s Device Solutions America (DSA) and is responsible for overseeing Samsung’s semiconductor production in the United States, as well as focusing on the development of new generations of DRAM products.
SK Hynix – Introducing IGZO as the Channel Material for Future DRAM
Per SK Hynix’s research, the IGZO channel is attracting attention to improve the refresh characteristics of DRAM.
Reportedly, IGZO thin film transistors have been used in the display industry for a long time due to their moderate carrier mobility, extremely low leakage current and substrate size scalability. It can be a candidate for a stackable channel material for future DRAM.
NEO – 3D X-DRAM Offers 8x Density Boost
NEO Semiconductor, a US memory technology company, introduces its groundbreaking technology, 3D X-DRAM, aimed at overcoming the capacity limitations of DRAM.
3D X-DRAM features the first-ever array structure of DRAM units based on Floating Body Cell (FBC) technology, akin to 3D NAND. Similar to 3D NAND Flash, its logic involves stacking layers to increase memory capacity. The FBC technology in 3D NAND Flash enables the formation of a vertical structure with the addition of a layer mask, offering high yield, low cost, and a significant density boost.
According to Neo’s estimates, the 3D X-DRAM technology can achieve a density of 128 Gb across 230 layers, which is eight times the current density of DRAM. NEO proposes a target of an eightfold capacity increase every decade, aiming to achieve a capacity of 1Tb between 2030 and 2035, representing a 64-fold increase compared to the current core capacity of DRAM.
This expansion is intended to meet the growing demand for high-performance and large-capacity semiconductor storage, especially for AI applications like ChatGPT.
The most significant aspect of BBCube 3D lies in achieving a three-dimensional connection between processing units and DRAM instead of the traditional two-dimensional linkages. The team employs an innovative stacking structure while using an innovative stacked structure in which the PU dies sit atop multiple layers of DRAM, all interconnected via through-silicon vias (TSVs).
The overall structure of BBCube 3D is compact, devoid of typical solder microbumps, and utilizes TSVs instead of longer wires, collectively contributing to achieving low parasitic capacitance and low resistance, thereby enhancing the electrical performance of the device in various aspects.
The research team evaluated the speed of the new architecture and compared it with two of the most advanced memory technologies, DDR5 and HBM2E. Researchers claim that BBCube 3D could potentially achieve a bandwidth of 1.6 terabytes per second, which is 30 times higher than DDR5 and 4 times higher than HBM2E.
Furthermore, due to features like low thermal resistance and low impedance in BBCube, potential thermal management and power issues associated with 3D integration could be mitigated. The new technology significantly improves bandwidth while consuming only 1/20 and 1/5 of the bit access energy compared to DDR5 and HBM2E, respectively.
The evolution of DRAM technology from 1D to 2D and now to the diverse structures of 3D has offered the industry various solutions to address its challenges. However, optimizing and improving manufacturing costs, durability, and reliability remain significant challenges in advancing 3D DRAM technology. Due to the difficulties in developing new materials and physical limitations, the commercialization of 3D DRAM still requires some time.
Based on the current research progress, the industry is actively engaged in the development of 3D DRAM, which are still in the early stages. According to industry insiders, it is predicted that 3D DRAM will begin to emerge around 2025, with actual mass production becoming feasible after 2030.
TrendForce releases latest trends in memory spot prices. With subdued DRAM supply and demand, transactions are limited. NAND Flash shows low trading volumes as well, expected to persist until after the Chinese New Year. Details below:
DRAM Spot Market:
DRAM spot prices are rising steadily, with larger hikes for chips and smaller increases for modules. Regarding chip spot prices, DDR5 products have shown a sharper price increase compared to DDR4 products. However, the quantities that DRAM suppliers have released into the spot market have been fairly limited since the first quarter is the slow season, so transaction volumes are also modest.
Currently, some Chinese OEMs are winding down their operations in preparation for the Lunar New Year holiday, so the state of spot trading is expected to remain like this until the end of the holiday. The average spot price of the mainstream chips (i.e., DDR4 1Gx8 2666MT/s) rose by 1.00% from US$1.903 last week to US$1.922 this week.
NAND Flash Spot Market:
Suppliers are maintaining an extremely restricted shipment on 3D wafers, which explains the steady increase of prices despite low transactions, though the elevation of prices has fallen below that of recent DRAM spots. Client SSD is also amplifying in partial prices from ongoing demand of replenishment among fabs.
A number of Chinese fabs are going on holiday with Chinese New Year arriving imminently, and the current transaction status is likely to carry on until after the holiday. 512Gb TLC wafer spots have risen by 6.77% this week, arriving at US$3.437.