SanDisk dreams of 3D flash memory chip

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 10, 2013 05:07 hrs

Analog chemical films for cameras are history. Floppy discs that were the primary source for data storage a few years ago are things of the past. Traditional hard disk drives for computers are set for oblivion with the onset of solid-state-drives (SSDs).

Flash memory technologies have virtually engulfed a whole lot of technology devices, be in digital cameras, mobile phones, computer tablets and various other computing devices. And SanDisk, the company that is on the forefront of driving many of those technological evolutions enjoying about a third of the flash storage market, has more to come from its lab.

The US-based company, which was co-founded by an Indian with two others almost 25 years ago, is now working on a three-dimensional (3D) flash memory chip, which is set to revolutionise the way flash storage is consumed now.

The technology, the work for which is at full progress at SanDisk's research and development (R&D) labs, is showing enough potential to fructify into products by 2020, said Sanjay Mehrotra, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of the California-based company.

"Our vision is that in the second part of this decade, we will have 1-8 terabits (1 terabit equals to 1,000 gigabits) kind of memories on a single chip using the 3D technology. Of course, we might be several years away from getting closer to this vision, but the technology which is under development at our lab has shown enough potential to realise this," said Mehrotra.

The reason why it is called 3D, he explains, is that instead of having one layer of flash memory shells, many more layers of active electronic components are integrated vertically and horizontally to make it a single circuit.

"A simple way of looking at it is that with the same real estate, you are building multi-storied house. In the same manner, instead of one layer of flash memory array, you can stack them up vertically. So from a piece of silicon, you can chip higher capacity," he added.

Mehrotra, a graduate from BITS Pilani and a post-graduate from University of California, co-founded SanDisk in 1988, along with Eli Harari (who was from Israel) and Jack Yuan (from China). The youngest of the co-founders, Mehrotra became the second chief executive officer of the company in January after the retirement of Harari.

"When we started SanDisk, flash memory was just a technology concept. And by 2012, it has grown to a $23-billion industry. Over these 25 years, flash has gone from just a concept to a huge industry. SanDisk has played a key role in creating, productising flash memory technology and creating the market applications," said Mehrotra.

Flash memory is an electronic non-volatile computer storage device that can be electrically erased and reprogrammed. Even though Flash was originally invented by Toshiba (Fujio Masuoka while working for Toshiba) in 1980, it took several years before flash became commercialised and SanDisk had a key role to play in that.

SanDisk has a very interesting relationship with Toshiba, the Japanese electronics giant. While in one hand, both companies fiercely compete with each other (another competitor is Samsung) in the flash memory market, Toshiba is also the R&D and manufacturing partner for SanDisk.

But the key difference, says Mehrotra, is that the flash products are hugely dependent on the "program chips', which control the applications of the products. For example, any end flash memory device has two chips – flash memory chip and the controller chip.

"We develop our own controller chip and Toshiba separately develops its own controller chips," he said.

SanDisk, which in 2012 reported $5.1 billion in revenues, has pioneered many product innovations around flash memory, including flash digital films and flash for mobile phones. The level of importance that the company has given on R&D and innovation can be gauged from the fact that while it has close to 4,500 employees globally, the number of patents it owns today is over 4,400.

In 2012, the company spent about $600 million on R&D. SanDisk operates one of its R&D centres in India out of Bangalore, which employs around 350 people.

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