TOKYO Reaffirming its commitment to DRAMs and leading-edge semiconductor process technology, NEC Corp. will up its investments in two domestic memory fabs to increase production of 128-Mbit synchronous and Rambus DRAMs. Moreover, the company will pump more money into a soon-to-be completed 0.18-micron logic fab with the expectation that it will be finished ahead of schedule.
The investments will enable NEC to about double its DRAM bit production over the next year, a company spokesman said. Despite the continuing slump in memory prices, NEC is aiming to regain market share it lost over the last year to companies like Samsung, Micron and Hyundai.
"If we're going to compete with the three DRAM-specific manufacturers, there are two things we need to do to remain competitive," the spokesman said. "One, we have to have competitive densities and technologies, and second, we have to produce in high volumes to realize efficiencies and economies of scale."
NEC laid out its capital-investment plan on Friday (May 28) at an end-of-fiscal-year earnings announcement, where it reported its net sales had declined 2.9 percent to $40.3 billion, resulting in a $1.3 billion net loss.
Only a few years ago, NEC was the second largest producer of DRAMs behind Samsung, but it saw market share fall last year to 11 percent. That put the company in fourth place after Samsung, Micron and Hyundai, according to Dataquest Inc.
In South Korea, Samsung has maintained its lead as the world's top DRAM producer and has been boosting capital spending since the beginning of the year, while Hyundai recently completed its acquisition of Korea's third-largest memory-chip producer, LG Semicon. In the United States, Micron Technology (Boise, Idaho) has become the world's second largest supplier of DRAMs after its takeover of Texas Instruments Inc.'s DRAM operations last year.
Like other Japanese DRAM companies that are trying to diversify their semiconductor products but still see DRAMs as a strategic part of their business, NEC is aiming to boost production of 128-Mbit DRAMs. At the same time, it is trying to avoid exacerbating the 64-Mbit supply glut.
By March of next year, NEC expects that prices for 64- and 128-Mbit DRAMs will reach price parity, the point at which two 64-Mbit chips will equal the cost of one 128-Mbit device. Based on that analysis, NEC's DRAM production increases will be limited to 128-Mbit synchronous DRAMS, 128/144-Mbit Direct Rambus DRAMs and, to a lesser extent, 256-Mbit SDRAMs, which will move into volume production in the second half of this year.
NEC expects to be producing by March 4 million 128-Mbit SDRAMs and 2.3 million 128/144-Mbit Direct Rambus DRAMs monthly. Production for 64-Mbit devices will fall from 10 million to 8 million a month by the same period, the spokesman said.
Following a pattern that has become the norm in the DRAM industry, NEC will boost production output mainly by shrinking its die sizes. This month, the company will shrink the line widths of its 128-Mbit SDRAMs from 0.22 micron to 0.2 micron, which will reduce the die area to 77 mm2. For Rambus DRAMs with the same density, the company plans to implement a 0.2-micron die shrink this summer, bringing the die size below 100 mm2. And next month, NEC will scale down its 64-Mbit devices to 42.7 mm2 using the same process technology.
Much of the spending for the new process technologies will be directed at the company's domestic fabs. NEC will increase its total domestic spending in semiconductor plant and manufacturing equipment from about $508 million last fiscal year to $828 million this fiscal year. The company's Kyushu, Hiroshima and soon-to-be completed Yamagata fabs will receive the bulk of the spending increases.
A planned $205 million capital infusion at Yamagata will allow the company to complete the plant by October three months ahead of schedule. The fab, which will initially produce 5,000 wafers per month, will deliver logic chips, graphics devices and RISC processors using a 0.18-micron process technology. NEC operates two other 0.18-micron lines, one at its Kyushu fab and a pilot line in Sagamihara.
NEC's total semiconductor capital-equipment spending will decline, however, as the company pares down outlays at its overseas fabs and at its joint-venture Hua Hong NEC Electronics DRAM fab in Shanghai, China. That facility was completed earlier this year. As a result, NEC will spend a $1.07 billion, against last year's $1.23 billion, for semiconductor capital equipment.