Toshiba has announced an investment of YEN 1.5 trillion into 3D-NAND flash memory devices, representing the largest capital investment ever made by a single corporation of Japan, The Gas Review revealed.

Plans for a new plant in Kitakami City have already stirred business for onsite nitrogen (N2) supply and gas alarm systems, showing active demand for gases and gas equipment.

Some people doubt the ability of Toshiba to make such an investment due to their large debt, but Toshiba’s profit ratio for memory devices business is estimated at 35% to 40%, and sales of more than YEN 1 trillion are expected this fiscal year. On paper, that means they would be able to repay their debt in one year. In essence, the more NAND flash memory devices they make, the more they can sell. The semiconductor market is speeding forward and the same goes for gases and gas devices.

Gas equipment market continues to expand

Active investments into NAND flash memory devices are being made by South Korean manufacturers, such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, as well as Micro Technology, Intel and other companies. This is creating an explosive increase in demand for Japan’s specialty gases and gas related equipment for semiconductor manufacturing equipment (CVD or etching machines). Already, manufacturers of gas related equipment both in Japan and overseas are enhancing their manufacturing systems, including HORIBA STEC, Fujikin, KITZ SCT, KOFLOC and Kanken Techno.

Applied Materials, Lam Research, Tokyo Electron, Hitachi Kokusai Electric and other semiconductor manufacturing equipment manufacturers are posting record earnings with each quarter financial results announcement – and there is a wave of new expansions planned.

NAND flash memory devices are not alone

This increase is not in 3D-NAND flash memory devices alone. Expanded production is being enhanced by Intel for CPUs by Micron Technology for DRAMs, and by Sony for CMOS image sensors. Electronic manufacturers like Murata Manufacturing, TDK and Nidec, among others, have increased production. Tight supply trends are appearing around the globe in everything from semiconductor ICs to electronic components.

Why? It is because the fourth industrial revolution is underway. Big data is being recorded the world over, which means that 3D-NAND flash memory drive is indispensable. For their recording media, data system manufacturers have completely switched from hard disks to flash memory devices.

Mitsubishi has plans for construction of more than 15 data system centres in Japan and 3D-NAND flash memory devices will be used in all of them. They need all the memory that they can get. CPUs are required to process this big data, so CPUs are necessary and so are DRAMs.

In many fields, the use of supercomputers for cloud computing is progressing. Then there is the IoT, such as self-driving automobiles. That requires CMOS image sensors to serve as electronic eyes and Sony is unrivalled in that area. Pre-processing is being performed at the Sony plants in Nagasaki, Yamagata and Oita, while after-processing is being performed at its plant in Kumamoto.

Transformation of etching gases

In manufacturing processes for 3D-NAND flash memory devices, four or five additional etching machines are required for each new layer. 64 layers, for example, adds up to 300 etching machines. That means a solid increase in the use of etching gases, such as tetrafluoromethane.

Although switching CPUs and DRAMs to 3D may not rival NAND flash memory devices, it is thought to be processing at foundries and other companies. There is a finate limit to the functionality that can be packed onto a limited surface area. To exceed that limit requires 3D structures.

There is demand to switch to 3D in after-processing and electronic components, although it is different from switching to 3D in pre-processing. Even 3D-PCBs can be used to achieve higher function integration. To do so, dry etching is required to open minute holes for 3D wiring, and etching gases will be used here as well. The usage amount is not large, but this potential market cannot be ignored.

Even a simple estimate of the etching gas market scale predicts a high probability that on a global scale it will be at least double starting in 2018 when full-scale manufacturing of devices with 72 and 96 layers starts in 2019 or so, it would not be surprising to see demand increase 10 fold or more. The annual current global market scale for tetrafluromethane appears to be 1,400 to 1,500 tonnes, but when China starts manufacturing 3D devices in 2020, that is likely to exceed 2,000 tonnes.

semiconductors circuit board

Moves by Japanese gas companies

Japan’s specialty gas and gas equipment suppliers are pursing global expansion centred in East Asia. They supply the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturers, such as Samsung Electronics and TSMC, and have grown along with the global electronics industry.

Kohei Morikawa, President of Showa Denko, made clear in his introductory remarks to individual business strategies in the “2020+” medium-term to long-term plan that they would strengthen “high-purity gases for electronics materials” as a growth product. Their Kawasaki Plant has been expanded and specialty gas business is being strengthened in South Korea, Taiwan, China and elsewhere.

Kanto Denka Kogyo and Sumitomo Seika Chemicals are moving to strengthen business in East Asia. Taiyo Nippon Sanso, has reached the number 2 spot for electronics materials gas sales in Taiwan and is expanding their electronics gases business in South Korea, China and elsewhere. Specifically, the Global Operations Division and the Electornics Materials Business Management Department of the Gases Business Division formed an organic business team called Total Electronics to handle the electronics market in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. Construction of an electronics materials gases plant is underway in Yang Province with a schedule to start operation in 2019.

Air Water has created an electronic division in their Industrial Company that places great importance on bulk gas supply, such as onsite N2, special materials (gases and chemicals), and special chemical supply equipment. The special chemicals are for ALD (atomic layer deposition), which Air Water is currently focusing on.