SAN JOSE, Calif. – Seeking to leapfrog its rivals, Japan’s Elpida Memory Inc. is expanding its collaborative development program with R&D specialist Intermolecular Inc.
This new multi-year agreement focuses on R&D, manufacturing process transfer and high-volume yield-ramp support for multiple generations of DRAM. The deal includes support for manufacturing process integration in the 30-to-40 nm nodes. It calls for future support for more advanced materials, process and integration development for DRAM technologies between 20- and 30-nm.
In 2007 and 2008, San Jose-based 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 speed up R&D of IC materials, processes and device structures.
A year later, Elpida (Tokyo) announced a collaborative development program and licensing agreement with Intermolecular. Elpida has been utilizing Intermolecular's R&D services for use in developing next-generation DRAMs.
The collaboration between Elpida and Intermolecular has been taking place at Intermolecular's facility, which consists of an R&D pilot line. Elpida is using Intermolecular's R&D fab tools to speed up its development times.
Before Elpida worked with Intermolecular, the Japanese DRAM house appeared to be behind it rivals. Strapped for cash, the DRAM maker in recent times also took a risk by moving from the 65- to the 40-nm node, thereby skipping the 50-nm node. At the time, Elpida’s prospects looked dim.
Then, while Elpida began developing its 40-nm DRAM products, the company formed a partnership with Intermolecular as a means to play catch-up against the likes of Hynix, Micron and Samsung.
The partnership is bearing fruit. Elpida Monday (Nov. 1) reported strong year-to-year gains for the second quarter and first six months of its fiscal year, but the company experienced sequential sales decline between its first and second quarters due to eroding DRAM selling prices.
Now, the race to ship 30-nm-class DRAMs is heating up. The 30-nm DRAM race is starting at a time when the market is slowing, according to a new report from VLSI Research Inc.
Surprisingly, though, Elpida is no longer behind the curve in the 30-nm DRAM race, thanks in part to Intermolecular. ''We’ve collaborated with them with 3x-nm products,’’ said David Lazovsky, Intermolecular’s president and CEO. ''We are working with them on a series of products.’’
In the process technology race, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. is the world’s first DRAM maker to ship a 30-nm-class device, a 2-Gbit DDR3 chip based on 35-nm technology.
Elpida, Hynix and Micron are racing each other to take second place in the 30-nm-class DRAM sweepstakes. In September, Elpida claimed it had completed the development of a 30-nm-class 2-Gbit, DDR3 SDRAM. Elpida plans to begin sample shipments in December of 2010.
Hynix Semiconductor Inc. is showing a 30-nm-class DDR3 device, with shipments due in the first half of 2011. Micron Technology Inc. has yet to announce its 30-nm-class DRAM product.
To ensure the efficient transfer of newly developed technologies into high-volume manufacturing, Elpida is still making use of the technologies at Intermolecular’s site in San Jose. The teams are collaborating closely with Elpida’s production tool suppliers and its 300-mm fab in Hiroshima, Japan.
“Over the past few years, Intermolecular’s HPC technology and team members have become an important component of our DRAM R&D capability,” said Hideki Gomi, director and chief technology officer of Elpida. “We have seen new materials and processes move from early stage development into volume production with remarkable speed, and with significantly lower costs than would have been achieved in a more-traditional R&D model.”
Intermolecular is working with other customers, but it has not disclosed the identities of its partners. The company is working with a number of chip makers, including flash vendors and the world’s ''two largest foundries,’’ Lazovsky said.
Fast-growing Intermolecular is also hiring, expanding into a new building and entering new markets like solar. Demand for its services is ''beyond our expectations'' in 2010, he said in a recent interview.