SAN FRANCISCO How will Japan's Elpida Memory Inc. dig its way out of the DRAM downturn? The DRAM specialist appears to have a new and secret weapon.
At the Semicon West trade show here, Elpida (Tokyo) announced a collaborative development program and licensing agreement with R&D service startup Intermolecular Inc. (San Jose, Calif.).
Under the terms, Elpida will use Intermolecular's R&D services for use in developing next-generation ICs. The companies did not elaborate, but some speculated that it could involve phase-change memories. Some even wonder if Numonyx N.V. is involved in one form or another.
The collaboration between Elpida and Intermolecular also reportedly involves the development of capacitor-based DRAM technology. In this area, Elpida works with Qimonda and Powerchip Semiconductor.
The collaboration between Elpida and Intermolecular is taking place at Intermolecular's San Jose-based facility, which consists of an R&D pilot line. Elpida will utilize Intermolecular's physical vapor deposition (PVD) and atomic layer deposition (ALD) workflows and applications.
Last year, Intermolecular made a splash in the market by announcing various ''fab in a lab'' technologies. The company devised a so-called High-Productivity Combinatorial (HPC) platform, which is said to facilitate R&D of IC materials, processes and device structures.
''This partnership with Intermolecular will significantly broaden and accelerate the scope of materials evaluation and process integration for our advanced memory technologies,'' said Takao Adachi, an Elpida director, chief technical officer and member of its Future Technology Development Office, in a statement. ''To successfully compete in today's memory market, it's critical to rapidly develop, qualify and deliver the best-performing products to customers. Collaborating with Intermolecular on R&D will strengthen our leadership position in the memory sector.''
Like all DRAM makers, Elpida is suffering amid a severe downturn in the market. For its 2007 fiscal year, the company posted a loss, while its sales fell 17.3 percent over 2006.
The bleak prospects in DRAMs are forcing Elpida and its rivals to enter new markets. For example, Germany's Qimonda AG has recently entered the solar market, while Korea's Hynix Semiconductor Inc. has moved in the crowded CMOS image sensor arena.
In June, NEC Electronics Corp. and Elpida agreed in principle to form a joint venture company in the field of display driver ICs. NEC Electronics will hold approximately 80 percent and Elpida will hold 20 percent of the new company stakes. In addition to manufacturing at NEC Electronics, the new joint venture will outsource its production to Elpida's 300-mm fab in Hiroshima.
Then, in March, Elpida entered into the silicon foundry business in partnership with Taiwan's United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC). UMC will contribute the IP support and logic technologies. The joint effort will commence at Elpida's Hiroshima fab.
The alliance extends the joint development program that the two companies announced last year for copper/low-k, DRAM, and phase-change memory technologies.
After its formation some three months ago, flash-memory upstart Numonyx this month signed on its first silicon foundry partner, by announcing a deal with Elpida. Numonyx is the memory spin-off of Intel Corp. and STMicroelectronics Inc. The new venture, which was recently formed, is pushing NOR, NAND and phase-change memory based on technology from Ovonyx Inc.
Like Numonyx, Elpida also has a licensing deal with Ovonyx. So, it's possible that Elpida and Numonyx are working in tandem on phase-change memories.
Hynix, Samsung and others are also separately working on the technology for good reason: Phase-change memory is forecast to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 164 percent from 2008 to 2015 and to reach $7.25 billion by 2015, according to Forward Insights.
But the technology has been difficult to bring into production after years of R&D. ''After forty years in the research labs, phase-change memory reached a milestone in February 2008, when Intel Corp. announced it was sampling a 128-Mbit phase-change memory (PCM) device. The milestone heralded a new phase in the long road to commercialization for phase-change memories,'' said Gregory Wong, an analyst with Forward Insights.
''The initial four years is expected to be the learning phase as vendors struggle to manufacture PCM in volume at high yields and OEMs modify firmware to take advantage of the fast performance and bit-alterability of PCM,'' he said. ''However, a combination of aggressive advanced process technology transitions, physical cell size reduction and multi-level cell functionality is expected to accelerate cost reductions and make phase-change memory a viable candidate to replace flash memory in the next five years.''