The NAND flash market was generally healthy in the fourth quarter of 2014, according to DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce. However, Samsung, Toshiba and SanDisk respectively faced pressures such as competitive pricing and end-market demands. Because of these pressures and the slight market downturn in the previous quarter, the NAND flash brand suppliers saw just a 2% quarterly increase in revenue, or at US $8.75 billion.
Sean Yang, Assistant Vice President of DRAMeXchange, expects that the NAND flash market will see oversupply in the first quarter of 2015 due to the seasonality of demand. As price decline becomes more noticeable, NAND flash vendors are expected to speed up technology migration to improve cost structure and minimize the impact of falling prices.
Compared with the previous quarter, Samsung’s bit shipment volume for NAND flash in the fourth quarter posted an increase of 5%, while the average sell price fell nearly 10%. As for the quarterly revenue, Samsung saw a drop of 4.2% over the previous quarter. Looking forward to 2015, the shipment growth is expected to remain in the single digits in the first quarter due to seasonal factors. However, Samsung’s bit shipment growth is expected to exceed the industry average of 35% to 40% because of the rise in SSD sales and the gradual maturation of 3D NAND flash technology.
In terms of product planning for 2015, Samsung will focus on expanding its SSD market share and will remain as a big threat to the heavyweight Intel in the SSD sector. Samsung will show strong growth in the in the PC SSD market as the share of TLC-SSD increases in the market and notebook penetration rate goes up. PC SSD’s bit shipment volume is anticipated to surpass that of eMMC and eMCP this year, becoming Samsung’s main NAND flash product. Additionally, shipments of enterprise SSD using 3D NAND flash technology will continue to increase. Meanwhile, 3D NAND flash products for PCs will be verified by clients in the first half of 2015, and an smooth transition to mass production is expected in the second half of the year. This will further extend the lead Samsung has over its competitors.
Toshiba’s revenue from NAND flash sales in the third fiscal quarter of 2014 (from October to December) was roughly the same as the previous quarter. However, the average selling price per unit dropped by 7% compared with the previous quarter. The lower than expected average selling price was attributed to several factors, such as depreciation of the Japanese yen, yield rate improvement in the A19-nm process and ongoing migration to the 15-nm process. Bit shipment volume increased by 6 to 7% compared with the previous quarter, while the operating margin remained stable.
Toshiba’s strategy of integrating the A19-nm enterprise SSD products, which are entering the market, with its HDD product lines has achieved good results in sales. In the future, Toshiba will increase sales of its own brand of SSD, eMMC, eMCP and memory card, while cutting back on sales of chips and wafers to improve margins.
On technology migration, Toshiba will continue moving towards the 15nm process. It is expected that 50% of the production will be on the advance technology by the summer of this year. This year’s capital expenditure is also unchanged. The supplier’s Fab5 plant will focus on 15nm production and 3D NAND flash pilot run.
Due to process adjustments and client-end sales dropping significantly, SanDisk’s bit shipment volume only experienced a quarterly increase of 4%. Therefore, SanDisk’s fourth quarter revenue for NAND flash products fell by 1.2% compared with the previous quarter and gross margin dropped from 47% to 43%, despite that the average selling price fall off was kept at 4%.
Looking at SanDisk’s production strategy and product planning, although some OEM clients remain on the 19nm process, major clients’ SSD, eMMC and eMCP products are being produced on 1ynm technology, and 15nm production is expected to exceed 50% of total output by the early third quarter of 2015. SanDisk’s bit growth in 2015 is projected to be around 35% to 40%, while its average selling price and cost will have an annual decrease in the range of 20% to 22%. Though SSD sales on the client end will face challenges this year, the overall SSD revenue is believed to stay above 30% based on the rapid enterprise SSD growth.
SK Hynix in the fourth quarter of 2014 experienced a significant bit shipment growth of 30% compared with the prior quarter. The supplier’s fourth quarter NAND flash revenue also increased to US $995 million for a 13% quarterly growth, higher than the industry average. Set against the third quarter, the average selling price fell slightly by 8%, and the rapid increase of the 16nm production ration also gave SK Hynix an operating margin boost. All these indicate that the performance of SK Hynix’s NAND flash division is recovering after reaching the bottom.
Looking ahead to 2015, the SK Hynix will strive to strengthen SSD product sales. Besides developing enterprise SSD product lines, the supplier will begin mass production of the TLC-based embedded products in the second half of the year. The supplier’s bit shipment volume will therefore have an above average growth, and its overall NAND flash capacity will reach 200K wafers per month before entering the fourth quarter of 2015.
Micron’s first fiscal quarter of 2015 (which ended in Dec. 4, 2014) brought a large 14% quarterly increase in the NAND flash revenue, owing to the 20% quarterly rise in bit shipments. However, the weaker than expected SSD and channel market sales meant that the drop in the average selling price was greater than the bit cost reduction. As a result, Micron’s storage business unit’s operating margin fell to 2.6%.
Looking ahead to the next quarter, the average bit cost will see a slight increase in the initial stages as Micron gradually increases the mobile NAND revenue ration. The importance of maintaining margins will thus become greater during the product mix adjustment period. Furthermore, Micron’s SSD and component sales will be noticeably affected by other vendors’ TLC-based products. As for product development, the memory maker’s 16nm MLC-based chip shipment ratio continues to climb, with an increase in chips used in Micron’s own brand SSD. TLC-based chips will be shipped to module manufacturers next quarter. They will also be used in Micron’s own brand of SSD in the second half of 2015.
Intel’s NAND flash operations have shown strong performances as electronic businesses in European, United States and China are entering their peak season, driving the growth of enterprise SSD shipment. Compared with the previous quarter, the average selling price in the fourth quarter of 2014 had a limited decline and bit shipments increased by more than 10%. Intel’s fourth quarter revenue grew to US $610 million, a dramatic increase of 25% compared with the same quarter of 2013.
In terms of product development, mass production of 16nm SSD products will begin in the first half of the year in order to reduce costs. Additionally, 3D NAND flash SSD products are expected to arrive at the end of the third quarter at the earliest, and this will reinforce Intel’s position as the leader of the enterprise SSD.