NAND flash memory: after 35 years, the technology is still a game changer

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

Toshiba Memory Corporation is the company that invented NAND flash, and the company has helped grow the technology for more than three decades, changing its name to Kioxia Corporation in 2019. Kioxia, Kioxia America ꟷ Scott Nelson, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, and Scott Beekman, The Vice President, Memory Business Unit recently spoke with Design News on the growth of NAND flash and what the future holds for the technology.

According to Nelson, a longtime Kioxia executive, in the early years of NAND flash, the rich array of digital storage applications now commonly 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 looking for a problem to solve,” Nelson said.

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

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

In recent years, NAND flash memory has found its way into laptop computers, in many cases supplanting hard drives, as well as storage devices in data centers. The NAND flash memory market is now estimated at $75 billion to $80 billion, according to Nelson.

Over the years, NAND flash memory has benefited greatly 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 moved from single-tier cells to multi-tier cells, increasing density while reducing costs.”

Nelson added, “We used planar technology in NAND flash until 2007 when Toshiba introduced 3D NAND flash. It was a big moment.

Process and production improvements, as well as leaps in scalable density, have resulted in huge cost reductions, which becomes quite obvious to consumers purchasing NAND flash cards or flash memory products.

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

Some industry observers have pointed out that semiconductor improvements attributed to Moore’s Law are beginning to lose momentum. When asked if this would affect NAND flash, Kioxia executives didn’t think it would.

“Moore’s Law will get harder,” Beekman conceded. “But a lot of innovative people will get things done. Anyone who has bet against Moore’s Law in the past has usually 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 affected the wider electronics industry.

“The biggest problem in recent years has been getting materials and products between different points,” Nelson said. 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 end products using flash memory reside in the Far East.

NAND flash has not 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,” Nelson said. “But we continue to make fabulous investments, depending on market dynamics.”

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 players ꟷ the others include Micron, Hynix, Samsung and SanDiskhelps to limit competition. Beekman noted that memory production is a capital-intensive activity with specialized processes, associated with a high cost of entry.

Looking to the future, Beekman expects continued efforts from Kioxia and rival NAND flash makers to increase cell density and get more bits per cell. Nelson added that the insatiable demands of data centers for cloud and large-scale computing, edge computing and other applications will in turn place greater demands on memory vendors for scalable memory and low latency.

Spencer Chin is editor of Design News and covers electronics beat. He has many years of experience in the development of components, semiconductors, subsystems, power and other facets of electronics, both from a business/supply chain perspective than technological. He can be reached at [email protected]

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