January 1, 2011

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Flash Forward

Joint Technology Venture Yielding Big Results

Tom Haraldsen

January 1, 2011

The smaller the better—at least when it comes to flash memory. And the small news is big news in Lehi. It’s been five years since technology giants Micron and Intel announced their intention to buddy up on a joint venture to manufacture NAND flash memory products. In January of 2006, Micron Technology, Inc. came together with Intel Corporation to form a new company: IM Flash Technologies, LLC. The marriage made sense for both companies, not only from a technology and assets standpoint, but also facility-wise. Micron had constructed and has owned a gigantic manufacturing plant in Lehi for more than a decade. Now, much of that unused complex could finally put to use producing the memory chips used in consumer electronics, handheld communication devices and removable storage. In the Beginning In March 2006, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) approved a financial incentive for the companies to start the project. Martin Frey, managing director of GOED at that time, explains that “this project fits directly into GOED’s economic clusters initiative. Our economic development efforts are capitalizing on the state’s core strengths and facilitating the development of targeted industries, ultimately resulting in a thriving economy and an increased standard of living for Utah’s citizens.” Economic and employment growth were among the hopes of state officials and leaders for both companies. A $3 billion investment in the facility and the addition of up to 1,850 jobs with above-average annual salaries made the project very promising. So far, most of the promises have become realities. “We’re able to combine Micron’s expertise in developing NAND technology and operating highly efficient manufacturing facilities with Intel’s multi-level cell technology and Flash memory history,” the company’s website proclaimed in early 2006. By November of that year, the plant was nearing startup, and IM Flash quickly became a major player in the NAND flash memory game. Hamilton Shattuck, the workforce services/academic relations manager for the company, says the plant now employs more than 1,500 and has been running at or near full capacity for several months. “Via our parents [Micron and Intel], we’ve become the world technology engineering leader in NAND flash memory,” he says. “We’ve got a number three market share—we’ve gone from zero to number three in less than four years.” NAND is an algebraic term for the type of memory produced at IM Flash. Essentially, it’s non-destructive and non-volatile. What it really means, Shattuck says, is “that it doesn’t need power to hold data. In fact, it holds data until it’s erased.” The best example of the usefulness of such memory is the cellular phone, which stores messages, phone numbers and lots of other data, even when it’s shut off or when its battery runs low. Leading the Way Today, IM Flash sits behind industry leaders Toshiba and Samsung, but not far behind. And it seems each day the technology improves. Case in point: On May 29, 2008, IM Flash introduced the industry’s first sub-40 nanometer (nm) NAND memory device, unveiling a 34nm 32 gigabit (Gb) multi-level cell chip. It was at that time the smallest NAND process geometry on the market, the only monolithic device at that density that fit into a standard 48-lead thin small-outline package, providing a cost-effective path to higher densities in existing applications. And on February 1, 2010, Intel and Micron announced the world’s first 25-nanometer (nm) NAND technology, which provides a more cost-effective path for increasing storage capacity in such popular consumer gadgets as smartphones, personal music and media players, as well as the new high-performance class of solid-state drives. “Every time you reduce the size, you increase capacity,” Shattuck says. So in the course of the past five years, the Lehi team has doubled the capacity of the initial memory chips by reducing the size from 50 to 25 nanometers. Not only is the 25nm process the smallest NAND technology, it is also the smallest semiconductor technology in the world—a technological accomplishment that continues the advancement of more music, video and other data in today’s consumer electronics and computing applications. Both “parents” are more than just pleased with their Lehi offspring. “To lead the entire semiconductor industry with the most advanced process technology is a phenomenal feat for Intel and Micron, and we look forward to further pushing the scaling limits,” says Brian Shirley, vice president of Micron’s memory group, in the company’s February 2010 announcement. “This production technology will enable significant benefits to our customers through higher density media solutions.” “Through our continued investment in IMFT, we’re delivering leadership technology and manufacturing that enable the most cost-effective and reliable NAND memory,” says Tom Rampone, vice president and general manager, Intel NAND Solutions Group. “This will help speed the adoption of solid-state drive solutions for computing.” Perhaps just as good news is the result in Lehi itself. The 2.3-million-square-foot plant—built in the mid-90s with high expectations for Micron manufacturing before economics changed the company’s plans—is now largely being used for the first time. With the company’s continued growth and seemingly endless innovation abilities, it could expand even more in the future.
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