NAND flash memory: After 35 years, the technology remains a game changer

NAND flash memory is everywhere: in cell phones, cameras, solid-state drives in computers, and storage drives in data centers. But this technology, first unveiled by Fujio Masuoka Toshiba in 1987, originally looking for a home.

Toshiba Memory Corporation is the inventor of NAND flash, and the company has helped drive the growth of the technology for over three decades, changing its name to Kioxia Corporation in 2019. Two executives from Kioxia’s US subsidiary Kioxia America ꟷ Scott Nelson, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, and Scott Beekman, The vice president of the Memory Business Unit spoke recently Design news on the growth of NAND flashes and what the future holds for technology.

According to Nelson, a longtime executive at Kioxia, in the early years of NAND flash the rich array of digital storage applications now normally associated with the technology did not yet exist. He recalled the first significant use of NAND flash as a digital answering machine, in the mid-1990s. “It was a solution in search of a problem to be solved,” Nelson said.

Beekman added, “The concept was to find solid-state memory analogous to a spinning disk,” referring to disk drives that were invented years earlier and have been the predominant storage mechanism in computers for many years. “For any technology, it takes time to learn how to use it.”

The big breakthrough for NAND flash came in the late 1990s with the emergence of digital cameras, with digital camera flash cards emerging around 2000. The decade of 2000 saw a boom in flash usage. NAND with the proliferation of digital cameras. Then smartphones emerged that store data on NAND flash cards.

In more recent years, NAND flash has made its way into laptops, in many cases supplanting hard drives as well as storage devices in data centers. According to Nelson, the NAND flash market is now estimated at $ 75 to $ 80 billion.

Over the years, NAND flash memory has largely benefited from improvements in density and performance. “Many of the factors that allowed Moore’s law to reduce the size of semiconductors also affected NAND flash,” Beekman said. “We have moved from single-level cells to multi-level cells, increasing density and reducing costs.”

Nelson added: “We used planar NAND flash technology until 2007, when Toshiba introduced 3D NAND flash. That was a great moment. “

Process and manufacturing improvements, coupled with leaps in scalable density, have led to huge cost reductions, which become quite evident for consumers buying NAND flash cards or flash memory products.

Beekman noted that in the mid-1990s, when NAND flash was just starting to emerge, $ 5 could buy 4 Mbytes of storage. “Today, a gigabyte of storage space would cost perhaps 10 to 20 cents.”

Some industry observers have commented that improvements in semiconductors attributed to Moore’s Law are starting to lose momentum. Asked whether this would affect NAND flash, Kioxia executives didn’t think it would be the case.

“Moore’s law will become more demanding,” Beekman admitted. “But a lot of innovative people will keep things going. Anyone who has bet against Moore’s law in the past has generally lost ”.

Some of the biggest concerns facing the NAND flash industry are not the technology itself, but the broader supply chain and economic issues that have hit the broader electronics industry.

“The biggest problem in recent years has been the transfer of materials and products between different points,” said Nelson. He noted that all of Kioxia’s memory factories are in Japan, with some cutting, testing and other assembly functions in Taiwan and China. Many of the end products that use flash memory reside in the Far East.

NAND flash hasn’t been immune to the ups and downs of electronics supply and demand. “It’s a technology where the elasticity of demand is a function of price,” said Nelson. “But we continue to make fabulous investments, depending on the dynamics of the market.”

While the NAND flash business is subject to the effects of fluctuations in supply and demand, the fact that there are only a small number of playersꟷthe others includes Micron, Hynix, Samsung and SanDiskhelps limit competition. Beekman noticed this memory production is a capital-intensive activity with specialized processes, coupled with a high cost of entry.

Looking ahead, Beekman expects continued efforts by Kioxia and rival NAND flash manufacturers to increase cell density and achieve more bits per cell. Nelson added that the data center’s insatiable demands for cloud and hyperscale computing, edge computing and other applications will in turn place greater demands on memory vendors for scalable, low-latency memory.

Spencer Chin is a Senior Editor for Design News dealing with the rhythm of electronics. He has many years of experience developing components, semiconductors, subsystems, power and other aspects of electronics from both a business / supply chain and technology perspective. He can be reached at [email protected]

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