Intel is expected to enhance its presence in China's NAND flash market, with plans to ramp up the capacity of its 12-inch fab in Dalian and possibly to license its technology to Tsinghua Unigroup for production of 3D NAND flash chips after winding up its cooperative partnership with Micron in the field in one year, according to industry sources.
The sources said Intel and Micron have announced intentions to go their separate ways after introducing their third-generation of 96-layer 3D NAND flash by the end of 2018 or early 2019 at the IM Flash Technologies (IMFT), their 12-year-old joint venture, with the exception for a special type of flash memory called 3D Xpoint.
In fact, the upcoming split is not without precedent. In 2012, Intel sold its share of some IMFT fabs to Micron, leaving just the original Lehi, Utah facilities as co-owned. And three years later, Intel converted its 12-inch wafer plant in Dalian, northeastern China to production of 3D NAND flash from processor chips, aiming to cash in on the increasing demand in the China market.
Some industry watchers speculated that Intel's eagerness to discontinue partnership with Micron is to pave the way for cooperating with Tsinghua Unigroup to develop the China market, and that may not rule out licensing 3D NAND manufacturing technology to the China semiconductor group.
They said that the likely tie-up between the two firms may alter the scenarios of the global NAND flash sector and become the most undesirable development for Samsung Electronics and Toshiba, also leading 3D NAND players, reasoning that the market might soon fall into a state of oversupply following an expected strong presence of China players.
But some observers said Intel itself will not worry about a possible imbalance between supply and demand in the 3D NAND market, because the company focuses primarily on the enterprise SSD, rather than consumer SSD, market as the major outlet for its NAND flash memory chips. Should Intel successfully team up with Tsinghua Unigroup, the company could not only show its muscles to Samsung, Toshiba and other major players in the 3D NAND field, but could also leverage the collaboration to secure a better position in developing the China market, they indicated.