|Computer memory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
In the global semiconductor industry, the next battleground will be three-dimensional memory chips.
Toshiba and Samsung Electronics of South Korea -- two of the world's major NAND flash memory chip makers -- are competing fiercely against one another to develop and commercialize the next-generation 3-D memory chips.
The "next-generation" labeling gives an impression that these chips have far better performance, but in fact 3D chips are still in the developmental stage.
Industry experts point out that conventional two-dimensional memory chips still offer more advantages at present. The number 48, they say, is the technological threshold these chip makers must cross in turning 3-D memory chips into genuinely next-generation products.
NAND flash memory chips -- non-volatile memories that save data even when the power is turned off -- are an essential product used in smartphones and PCs. In recent years, Samsung has controlled the largest market share of NAND memory globally, while Toshiba has remained the second-biggest player. Now, the two firms are racing against each other to commercialize 3-D chips.
While conventional memory chips basically consist of one layer of memory elements, 3-D chips are made by stacking up dozens of thin layers of memory elements. This multiple-layer method helps expand memory capacity dramatically. Toshiba is aiming to produce NAND memory chips capable of storing 1 terabyte of data -- 16 times the capacity currently available -- by fiscal 2019.
The more layers 3-D memory chips have, the larger their memory storage capacity will become. The question is how many layers Toshiba and Samsung have been able to stack up on a memory chip so far. Both companies have yet to disclose their developmental status, but an industry insider said they achieved "24 layers last year and are expecting to develop 32-layered memory chips this year."
Yet, "there would be no point in mass-producing 3-D memory chips at this stage in time," said one Toshiba executive. This is because its cutting-edge conventional chips, which have nearly reached the physical limits of miniaturizing circuit line widths, are actually more cost-competitive on a capacity basis.
But all this will change when the company can make 48-layer 3-D memory chips, according to Toshiba officials. Better yet, depending on circumstances, the change may come sooner when they can produce 40-something-layered memory chips. Observers say that both Toshiba and Samsung are looking to achieve 48 layers in 2015 and are now rushing to turn out truly next-generational memory products ahead of their main competitor.
The two companies will likely start mass-production of 3-D memory chips as soon as they can cross the 48-layer technological threshold. Whichever company can reach that target first will grab a chance to lead the 3-D memory chip sector.