The major players in the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) market continue to be South Korean and Taiwanese companies, with only one US company, Micron competing in the marketplace.
But it looks like that’s set to change because a consortium of Chinese vendors bought Silicon Solution, a fabless firm quoted on Nasdaq.
Memory watch analysts DRAM Exchange said the consortium of high end investors was backed by the Chinese government. The government has pledged to invest 120 billion yuan in the semiconductor industry and this move shows just how seriously China takes the aim.
Right now, said the analysts, China’s imports of semiconductors – be they CPUs, DRAM and Flash memory exceed its petrol imports.
Intel is in bed with some Chinese semiconductor companies, and that, in itself is a significant factor.
China spent over $10 billion in importing DRAM last year – that’s 20 percent of the worldwide production of the semiconductors. Of that imported memory, 55 percent was for mobile memory, while PCs represented 19 percent and server memory eleven percent.
So it’s logical that to reduce this trade gap, China continues to invest in DRAM to give it a degree of self sufficiency.
How that will pan out for the competition remains to be seen.
Shipments of DRAM aimed at the mobile market rose 27.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, amounting to a value of over $3.6 billion.
That’s according to market intelligence company DRAM Exchange, which observed that mobile DRAM now accounts for 40 percent of all shipments of this memory type.
Increased shipments of smartphones account for the lion’s share of mobile memory sales, and DRAM Exchange said in its report that sales look strong in the first quarter of this year – traditionally one of the weaker quarters in the memory market.
The report said that the industry is waiting for the release of the next generation LPDDR4 – right now only Qualcomm supports this memory type. It is expecting some high end smartphones to ship in the second quarter of this year.
As far as manufacturers are concerned, Samsung remains the leader, followed by SK Hynix and Micron. These last two are the main suppliers for Apple iPhone 6s.
Samsung say a small drop in revenues of 5.2 percent, but Micron says its revenues soar by 27.8 percent in the fourth quarter.
Sales of DRAM rose by 8.2 percent in the fourth quarter, bucking the usual pattern in the memory market.
DRAM Exchange, which tracks the memory market said manufacturers of devices migrated fast to 20 and 25 nanometre production, and the additional output meant quarterly revenues worldwide amounted to $13 billion.
The firm said that Samsung has shown the most profit from making DRAM, with typical operating margins of 47 percent.
SK Hynix also makes healthy margins of 42 percent, while American DRAM maker Micron managed to turn in margins of 29.5 percent.
Although Micron is still manufacturing using 30 nanometre technology, it raised production of DRAM for servers, which is the most lucrative application.
Samsung started volume production on 20 nanometre in the fourth quarter and the yield rate and output of chips made at 25 nanometre has increased.
Micron has begun sampling on the 20 nanometre process but plans to migrate so fast that there will be 80,000 wafer starts a month by the end of this year.
Capital spending by semiconductor companies grew by 12.9 percent last year, but will only grow by 0.8 percent this year.
That’s according to market intelligence company Gartner which said capital spending will generate revenues of $65.7 billion this year.
Bob Johnson, a VP at Gartner, said that equipment spending outstripped capital spending last year and will do the same this year. 2016 will be a different kettle of fish. Manufacturers will exercise caution this year.
This year, chip foundries will outspend logic device manufacturers but there’s a danger of the mobile market being saturated and that will dampen the need for new capacity.
Memory manufacturers are likely to switch their manufacturing from NAND to DRAM because the market is more favourable for the latter than the former. But that will switch net year, because DRAM will be in oversupply.
Demand for solid state drives will mean more capacity shifts during the next three years.
Sales of semiconductors in 2013 are likely to reach as much as $338 billion during 2014.
That’s according to market research company Gartner, which says that’s a 7.2 percent hike compared to 2013.
DRAM showed a revenue growth of 26.3 percent in 2014 and will generate as much as $44.1 billion for the entire year. But memory sales are subject to wildly fluctuating cycles, and Gartner believes there will be oversupply in 2016 meaning revenues then will drop by over a quarter.
Jon Erensen, research director at Gartner, said semiconductor revenues reached an all time record in Q3 2014.
He said that there will be a flood of new product introductions as we head into the holiday season.
He also predcts that sales of smartphones and ultramobiles will increase by 27 percent and 18.9 percent respectively.
But semiconductor growth in 2015 is only likely to hit 5.8 percent, because there will be oversupply from chip fabrication plants.
SK Hynix, the world’s second biggest maker of memory chips, is in damage control mode, quite literally. A blaze gutted parts of one of its plants in Wuxi, China, but the company is now trying to reassure the market by saying that damage was largely superficial.
The memory maker claims supply volume will not be affected, as there was no major damage to production equipment. It looked spectacular, but luckily the blaze doesn’t appear to have done much damage. One person suffered a minor injury and the company insists it will resume operations “in a short time period”.
However, the world was watching for good reason. The fab in question produces an estimated 15 percent of the world’s DRAM. Any extended outage would have had a massive effect on supply and prices. Luckily, SK Hynix insists the market will not be affected and the supply chain has nothing to worry about. Furthermore, the company says there is no material damage to any fab equipment in the clean room
The fire started yesterday afternoon and it took almost two hours to extinguish. What made it look a lot worse to onlookers was the fact that it churned out a lot of black smoke, which was concentrated in air purification facilities, which pretty much saved the plant but made the whole incident look a lot more ominous.
The global semiconductor market appears to be recovering. According to Semiconductor Intelligence, the market was up 6 percent sequentially in the second quarter, which was the best result in two years. What’s more, the firm now expects to see six percent growth on an annual basis.
However, forecasts for 2014 are a mixed bag. Semiconductor Intelligence expects 15 percent of growth, while IDC sees only 2.9 percent and there are a few other outfits in the middle. The average forecast is 9.4 percent, reports Digitimes.
Guidance greatly varies from vendor to vendor. AMD is expecting 22 percent growth thanks to new design wins, we are guessing console custom chips. STMicroelectronics hopes to stay flat, but excluding wireless ST expects 3.5 percent growth. Samsung is not saying much, although it expects growth for DRAM, NAND and image sensors. Micron has not provided guidance either.
Semiconductor Intelligence expects much of the growth in the semiconductor market next year will be generated as a result of the improving global economy. However, the economy is still volatile and the same is true of the tech industry.
The real problem is that much of the growth appears to be coming from SoCs and memory, rather than big processors which tend to carry the highest margins.
The DRAM supply shortage isn’t getting better and memory maker Inotera now believes it will drag on until the end of the year. Strong demand for smartphones and tablets is to blame, and prices are going up as well.
Inotera believes the drought could even extend into the next year. The average price of benchmark DDR3 4GB modules already rose 13 percent last month according to DRAMeXchange. In fact, the price of DDR3 4GB DRAM has already gone up by about 70 percent in 2013, reports Taipei Times.
DRAMeXchange said demand for DRAM is starting to pick up, reversing an extended period of oversupply. However, the shortage is not bad news for memory makers.
Inotera is hoping to do much better in the second quarter than in the first quarter, in which it managed to narrow its net loss. Memory maker Nanya was profitable in the first quarter and it is reporting that its average selling prices for Q1 rose 30.5 compared from the fourth quarter.
Although the PC slowdown did not help memory makers, phones, tablets and next-gen gaming consoles should help drive demand up and mitigate oversupply issues.
Industry analysts believe the memory sector will continue to do relatively well despite a decline in NAND demand. Although NAND might not be a very hot commodity, DRAM sales are expected to surge, reports The China Post.
The price of 2GB DDR3 chips in the first quarter rose 57.8 per cent, while NAND prices rose by 19.8 per cent, according to TrendForce. Strong demand for tablets and smartphones seems to be boosting DRAM sales, and the fact that an increasing number of vendors are introducing Android devices with 2GB of RAM should also help.
However, strong demand could also result in even higher DRAM prices. TrendForce believes the price of 4-gig DDR3 DRAM modules has the potential to rise by another 30 per cent. The outfit points out that the high season for mobile device launches is drawing near, which means more demand should be expected.
Although DRAM prices will remain strong, NAND prices are expected to decline in the short term. NAND prices should remain relatively stable, due to a reduction in supply.
It might sound a bit counter intuitive, but it is worth noting that smartphone and tablet peddlers are not increasing the amount of NAND storage in their devices. Most devices still ship with 8GB or 16GB of storage, while high end gear tends to ship with 32GB, or in some cases 64GB. This is in stark contrast to market trends just a couple of years ago, when each new generation of devices tended to offer a twofold increase in storage.
On the other hand, the amount of RAM is steadily growing. Three years ago smartphones used to ship with 512MB, which was upped to 1GB for the last two generations and as of late last year we are seeing an increasing number of Android devices with 2GB of RAM.