Flash memory plays a unique role in consumer electronics. On the one hand flash memory is a tremendously disruptive technology, capable of pulling out the rug from underneath traditional hard drives. But flash also sets new standards for data storage that have profound effects for the development of other premium products such as mobile phones and portable media players. No one knows this better than Young-Ho Lim. The 43-year-old manager of Samsung’s Flash Design Team was the winner of the 2006 Samsung Award of Excellence in Technology for his work on 8Gb and 16Gb MLC NAND flash. When it comes to showing true leadership, it’s technologists like Young-Ho Lim that show what it really means to work for a great company.
Industry analysts have predicted Flash memory would become the leading form of storage for years, but consumers went elsewhere, to smaller, faster hard drives. Why has it been so hard to grow the Flash marketplace?
Let me refresh your memory about flash. Flash memory is nothing less than a semiconductor storage device to preserve data—even after the power is switched off. Depending on how its memory elements are arrayed, flash comes in one of two architectures: NOR stores system software code, NAND stores users’ audio, video, and text data. Both can be found in everyday products such as MP3 players, mobile phones and digital cameras because flash memory is compact, consumes little power, is fully resistant to external shock, and operates quickly. But flash has one problem: limited storage. Only a few years ago, the largest flash device was just one gigabit. Market prices and the availability of other large-capacity storage have also been major obstacles to growth in flash memory sales. But we are finally surmounting these problems. Recently, Samsung developed 16Gb NAND flash by applying 50nm process technology. And moving forward, we are introducing high integration technology that works on a 40nm level memory chip. Our ability to innovate with the technology continuously extends NAND Flash density.
How then do you predict demand when consumer knowledge lags so far behind the technology?
Given that NAND is faster and more cost effective than any other nonvolatile memory device, it wasn’t hard to predict that NAND use would increase with handheld products, so Samsung developed NAND for high-capacity storage. It started with USB drives, digital still cameras, MP3s, and memory cards (such as SD, MMC, and compact flash). The higher NAND densities opened doors for more digital applications to enjoy the exciting experience and conveniences of flash memory. Today, these applications are expanding to hard drives, portable media players, and even the personal computer platform. The density build continues as does the diversity of applications.
So how big can Flash get? Is there an upward limit?
NAND capacity has been doubling every year. 8Gb chips now in mass production can be used to make memory cards of 4GB to 16GB—almost enough for a hard drive. In the next two to three years, 16Gb and 32Gb flash chips will be on the market, which will allow us to fabricate devices from 32 to 64 gigabytes. We’ll soon see flash take over the role of hard drives in lower capacity ranges of 100GB or under, then advanced camcorders with NAND flash, and eventually even wall frames that store images.
Which came first for Samsung: recognizing the market for Flash or developing the technological competence to manufacture Flash?
Samsung took notice of NAND flash as a way to create semiconductor-based storage that could replace the hard drive as far back as 1991. No other company was paying attention to a full-fledged growth for NAND flash memory to become mainstream. We developed unique and innovative writing and erasing technologies for NAND flash memory, which was an unproven concept at the time. Our innovations were applied to create a commercially viable 16Mb chip in 1994 followed by a 32Mb version in 1995. Those technology advances were the foundation for fast-density-building and high-performance NAND flash memory today. Without them, we would not have been able to achieve today’s densities in the gigabit range.
So what’s next?
We want to leverage our solid memory chip production to create effective fusion products that set us apart from our rivals, because future memory technology is a fusion of existing know-how. Today, Samsung enjoys an industry lead right across the board: DRAM, SRAM, flash memory, and next-generation memory with various architectures to satisfy specific applications and to further differentiate our products. This has already resulted in multi-chip package devices as well as One-NAND and moviNAND lines. These are our future bestsellers.