Toshiba eyes 3D memory chips with new factory investment

The company is looking beyond current NAND flash technologies to future memory chips

Toshiba will take its first step towards mass production of a new generation of memory chips later this year when it begins construction of a new factory in Japan.

The factory will be Toshiba's fifth at its manufacturing base in Yokkaichi in western Japan. It will initially be used to produce conventional NAND flash chips, but Toshiba plans to expand this to new types of 3D memory where chips and components are stacked vertically, it said Tuesday.

NAND flash is probably the most ubiquitous type of memory in use today. It's what's inside USB sticks and memory cards and can also be found embedded in devices like digital cameras, cell phones and solid-state drives (SSDs).

Semiconductor makers are constantly trying to improve the capacity of their chips by packing components closer but engineers are beginning to worry that this method may be reaching its limits. As the memory cells become smaller, ellectrical interference between them begins to cause problems.

That's where 3D memory comes into the picture. By building vertically in addition to horizontally, engineers can keep increasing the capacity of chips without having to deal with smaller and smaller memory cells.

Toshiba will start construction of its new plant in July this year and expects first phase production of NAND memory to begin in the spring of next year, Norio Sasaki, president and CEO of Toshiba, said at a Tokyo news conference. The production will be in the 20-nanometer class and roughly match that announced earlier this year by Intel and Micron.

At an unspecified later date the plant will house Toshiba's first production line capable of producing 3D chips, he said.

Toshiba and SanDisk began working on 3D memory chips in 2008 in anticipation of the construction of the new factory. The start of this construction represents an important step towards possible future production of the chips.

The expansion plans are part of a push by Toshiba to achieve compound annual growth of around 8 percent in its semiconductor business over the next three years. The business achieved net sales of ¥1.3 trillion [t] (US$14 billion [b]) in the previous financial year but Toshiba wants this to grow to ¥1.65 trillion [t] over the period, said Sasaki.

To help it and other business areas grow the company is increasing total capital expenditure by 74 percent compared to last year and investing an extra 10 percent in research and development. About half the total capex and around one third of the R&D spending will go to the semiconductor business.

Martyn Williams is in Tokyo and can be reached by e-mail at martyn_williams@idg.com and on Twitter @martyn_williams

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