3D DRAM commercialization accelerating at Samsung Electronics, SK hynix

Korea-based global DRAM leaders — Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix — are accelerating the commercialization of 3D DRAM, which are said to be a game changer in the memory industry. However, Micron, which ranks third in the DRAM industry, has already begun its 3D DRAM research since 2019, securing two to three times as many patents as the two Korean chipmakers.

According to sources in the Korean semiconductor industry on March 12, key semiconductor executives of Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix recently cited 3D DRAM as a way to overcome the physical limitations of DRAM micro-processing at some official events such as semiconductor conferences.

“3D DRAM is considered a future growth driver for the semiconductor industry,” said Lee Jong-myung, vice president and head of the process development office at the Samsung Electronics Semiconductor Research Center at the IEEE EDTM 2023 held at COEX in Seoul on March 10. Cha Seon-yong, vice president of SK Hynix who is in charge of the SK Hynix Future Technology Research Institute, also said on March 8, “By next year or so, details about the electrical characteristics of 3D DRAM will be revealed, determining the direction of their development.”

It was in 2021 that Korean semiconductor makers officially started to talk about 3D DRAM development. It coincided with the time when Samsung Electronics started research by establishing a next-generation process development team within its DS Division in 2021.

3D DRAM is a memory chip with a new structure that breaks the current aged paradigm. Existing DRAM product development focuses on increasing integration by reducing circuit line widths, but as line widths entered the 10 nm range, physical limitations such as capacitor current leaks and interference increased significantly. In order to prevent this, new materials and equipment such as high dielectric constant (high K) deposition materials and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) equipment were introduced. But the semiconductor industry believes that miniaturization to make 10 nm or more advanced chips will cause great challenges for chipmakers.

The line width of cutting-edge DRAM that Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix will mass-produce this year is 12 nanometers. Considering the current situation where the line width of DRAM miniaturization is being reduced by one nanometer, commercialization of DRAM with a new structure will become a necessity, not an option, three to four years from now.

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix may speed up the commercialization of 3D DRAM technology. Unlike the existing DRAM market, the 3D DRAM market does not have an absolute leader, so rapid mass production technology development is of paramount importance. It is also necessary to respond in a timely manner to an increase in demand for high-performance and high-capacity memory semiconductors due to the activation of artificial intelligence (AI) such as ChatGPT.

Technology competition is heating up in the 3D DRAM sector, too. According to TechInsights, a semiconductor technology analysis company, Micron, which ranks third in the memory semiconductor market, is actively preparing for the blue ocean market by securing more than 30 patented technologies for 3D DRAM by August of 2022. Compared to less than 15 DRAM patents held by Samsung Electronics and about ten held by SK Hynix, Micron has secured 3D DRAM-related patents two to three times more than the two Korean chipmakers. Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix rank first and second in the world’s DRAM market, respectively.