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The memory industry has always gone through a predictable boom-and-bust cycle, but the pandemic and geopolitical instability has introduced new twists to the market over the course of 2022, and uncertainty will continue to play a role in 2023.
In late 2021, the automotive sector was an indicator for looming supply chain woes. As recently as November 2022, the chip shortage forced automaker Toyota to temporarily issue metal keys for new cars in Japan—new vehicle customers will now receive one smart key and an old-school metal key. The low-tech tactic comes at a time when many chipmakers have announced workforce cuts in response to a supply/demand mismatch—most recently and notable is Micron Technology. Meanwhile, Intel is implementing a series of job cuts due in part to a PC slump.
To further muddy the waters, the cuts come at a time when both Micron and Intel are investing in new manufacturing facilities in the U.S., spurred by the recent CHIPS and Science Act. Micron plans to invest up to $100 billion over the next 20 years to build a chip facility near Clay, N.Y.
China’s tough stance on Covid—only recently lightened somewhat—has also put pressure on the overall supply chain landscape, while a shortage of a single component or materials could damper the delivery of a device.
Given all this uncertainty, including the threat of a recession, confusion is the natural reaction, Jennifer Strawn, head of global solutions and sourcing for Rand Technology, told EE Times. There’s also a hangover from the sudden, massive demand for 5G and IT infrastructure in 2020 to support remote work. “All these things have to be built out,” Strawn said.
This has led to a huge spike in demand for raw materials and chips, she added, which stabilized by the end of 2022. It was a different story earlier in the year, however.
Limited allocation challenges smaller players
Confusion is an apt term because fabs are tasked with producing different complexities for varying types of chips, Strawn said. “To support all the different types of technology that go into products, there’s a capacity issue.”
Fabs must figure out what the right mix is to optimize for what’s going to be produced, including raw materials as well as the right talent—the capacity of the fab is a factor, as is the capacity of the overall supply chain. Strawn said the war in Ukraine creates problems for the neon gas supply needed for equipment. “Copper is looking to be a problem moving into the future as a raw material. There isn’t just one implication that’s impacting your supply chain.”
If you were a smaller player looking for components, such as memory, earlier this year, you might have found yourself having to make compromises as the major memory makers were likely to prioritize larger customers.
Anthony Le, VP of marketing at Macronix, said the beginning of the pandemic saw a massive shutdown of just about everything—that included the automotive sector because no one was driving. The shutdown was temporary, however, and the demand for automatic electronics followed a hockey-stick trajectory.
Le said Macronix’s ability to deliver was consistent, but demand had tripled by late 2020. By 2021, the hope was the supply and demand would balance out, but the pandemic created a wide range of challenges, some of which had nothing to do with electronics themselves, such as shipping issues and talent shortages.
Le attributed component shortages to delays in purchase orders, and the effects were more prominent depending on the product—a shortage of display chips wreaked havoc in late 2021 and cut across all electronics segments, not just automotive. “And even if you could do everything right at your end, you could run into barriers because of port delays. It’s just sitting in a container somewhere,” Le said. He added that factory shutdowns in China affected everything from automotive to PCs and smartphones.
In the meantime, he said, everyone was at home, which created demand for a whole host of devices, including PCs, Wi-Fi routers and set-top boxes for streaming. This, in turn, meant that Internet service providers needed to make investments to accommodate home users and their increased bandwidth needs.
Supply chain hurdles beget optimization, transparency
Le said Macronix’s strategy for dealing with supply hurdles and high demand was moving its product mix across its three fabs to optimize capacity so that the company could scale up to higher densities and implement 3D technologies. “Macronix saw this wave coming.”
Specifically, the need for higher densities in automotive was apparent. “We play a pretty niche market, which continues to grow, especially in automotive,” Le said.
Transparency across the supply chain is critical, he added, and Macronix focused on how it could best triangulate the products and the forecasts with what automaker OEMs require. Talking to customers regularly and allocating parts as much as possible is also important. He said the challenge for some customers was that they didn’t have the volumes necessary for other vendors to allocate parts to because even a hundred thousand units was too small.
For Macronix, volume is one factor. “The other one is: What kind of long-term relationship can we have with you?”
In the meantime, inventory cycles got much shorter, going from quarters to weeks, and customers realized they may have to redesign a product, such as a microcontroller, because of part availability. Le said Macronix could respond by doing some redesigning on its end.
The automotive segment wasn’t the only industry where devices had to retool to account for component and material shortages, and the shift to remote work wasn’t the only contributor to a massive uptick in demand for memory. Artificial intelligence (AI) applications and workloads were arguably oblivious to the pandemic and kept their growth pace.
R.K. Anand, CEO and co-founder of Recogni, said the architecture of the application dictates the amount of memory necessary. With AI, memory demands can be formidable, while routers in demand by remote workers obviously required less. Even though the memory needs were lower, the sheer volume proliferation of routers had a significant impact on memory supply.
Anand said this is where designers must make trade-offs, with a particular focus on how to reduce requirements and the number of needed parts, so that they’re not in the broad market fighting for allotment with a buyer who has a lot more leverage to grab most of the supply.
New designs may require workarounds
Whether it’s AI, automotive or any other industry, Anand said startups must think hard about how much memory they really need. “It’s essential that new companies look at design points and pick memories and other things that are not at the bleeding edge, but at least at the leading edge with a significant capacity that’s being manufactured around the world.”
He said it’s critical to be aware of who the suppliers and the alternatives are, as well as pay attention to forecasts and whether it makes sense to pre-buy further in advance. “You want to make sure that you have more than one supply choice.”
When a customer must look for a different supplier due to shortages, it can create opportunities for a company. Alliance Memory’s business, for example, was built on taking over end-of-life (EOL) product lines. But even before the pandemic, these so-called “legacy” memories were demonstrating even more longevity because not every device needs the latest and greatest memory—even today, DDR3 DRAM is enough for new medical diagnostic equipment.
David Bagby, president and CEO of Alliance Memory, said even prior to pandemic-induced supply shortages, the major DRAM and NAND makers were focused on bigger customers, which has been a boon to his company as smaller players sought out Alliance for its inventory. If you weren’t a big fish, you couldn’t get parts, he said. “We pride ourselves on that inventory. That’s really paid off for us.”
The irony is that Alliance accounts for about 1% of the DRAM market, Bagby said, but serves more customers than every DRAM manufacturer out there because the company supports smaller customers who don’t need the high-volume purchase order that the major DRAM vendors cater to. He said the company’s mentality of carrying inventory countered the “just in time” approach of major distributors, meaning Alliance was well suited for the pandemic era—especially the early days as the demand for PCs and routers spiked to accommodate remote work.
The success of Alliance’s model has meant it’s no longer really a legacy memory supplier, but an alternative source. Bagby said it’s now offering DDR4 DRAM, including low-power DDR4. “These are state-of-the-art products.”
As a private company, Alliance has been able to reinvest all the profits to continue growth, in part by cornering the market on certain parts as suppliers reduce or EOL them while focusing on customers of a certain size.
The flattening out of demand that’s occurring now is something Bagby was expecting because the demand created by those working and staying home was eventually going to be fully met, followed by another pivot as the world began to open again.
The end of 2022 saw a dip in overall chip demand as consumers spent less on gadgets, and there are signs that the shortage dogging the automotive sector is nearly over. However, Rand’s Strawn said not only did the world change with the pandemic, but it’s also not fully recovered.
At present, there’s surplus inventory in some segments as others struggle with specific components and materials shortages that interfere with getting devices out the door. Strawn said China lifting its Zero-Covid strategy should alleviate some of the transportation hiccups and factory shutdowns, which can only help the supply chain.
Rand is helping its customer figure out what to do with their surplus inventory, all while continuing to navigate the supply chain issues, such as capacity constraints and materials availability. “Once the surplus gets consumed, we’re almost back to where we started 2022.”
She said the delayed adoption of DDR5 could occur in 2023, while the tipping point for electric vehicles in 2024 along with non-stop advancement of AI will continue to drive the semiconductor market as supply chain hiccups get ironed out.