The pandemic has impeded the supply of many end-user devices such as smartphones, servers, PCs, and niche consumer electronics components, indirectly leading to a decline in a willingness on the procurement-end to stock relatively abundant memory chips, according to TrendForce research. This is most obvious in the stance of PC OEMs holding more than 10 weeks or more of DRAM inventory. Therefore, most DRAM fabs experienced a drop in shipments in the fourth quarter of 2021 and declining purchasing momentum has also led to a downward trend in DRAM price quotations. Total 4Q21 DRAM output value decreased by 5.8% QoQ, reaching US$25.03 billion, with only a few suppliers such as SK hynix bucking this trend.
Looking forward to 1Q22, although material shortages for some components can be alleviated, the first quarter is already an off season for demand and buyers’ inventories are still flush. Thus, the purchasing-side will largely concentrate on destocking, with overall purchasing momentum remaining sluggish. Thus, DRAM pricing in the first quarter of this year is expected to face greater pressure than in the fourth quarter of last year and overall DRAM output value may fall further.
4Q21 DRAM price drop causes downturn in manufacturer profit levels
In terms of revenue performance, price quotations from the three major DRAM manufacturers all declined with slightly differing shipments trends. Shipments from both Samsung and Micron fell due to poor end-user demand, with revenue down 9% and 8%, respectively. In terms of market share, Samsung dropped slightly to 42.3% while still ranking first, SK hynix climbed to nearly 30%, ranking second, and Micron dropped slightly to 22.3%. Pricing gaps between these three DRAM manufacturers in 1Q22 is expected to be narrow, but since SK hynix had a relatively high base period of shipment in the 4Q21, the company expects a decline in its shipments slightly higher than the industry average which will reduce its 1Q22 market share slightly.
In terms of profit performance, the operating profit margins of Samsung, SK hynix, and Micron (September-November financial reporting) fell to 50%, 45%, and 41%, respectively, due to the cost optimization resulting from an increase in the proportion of advanced processes not being enough to make up for the decline in price quotations. TrendForce believes that the downturn trend in profit margins is likely to intensify in 1Q22 and DRAM suppliers will face sharper profit decline. Manufacturers can only increase the proportion of advanced processes and optimize their product portfolio to reduce the impact brought on by price pressure.
Specialty DRAM market conditions also weak in 4Q21, with Taiwanese manufacturer revenue falling as well
As the demand for specialty DRAM end-user applications such as TVs and consumer electronics products dropped significantly in 4Q21, coupled with the impact of material shortages in the supply chain, client demand for DRAM shipments also cooled substantially. The 4Q21 specialty DRAM price decline was also comparable to that of mainstream products, in turn impacting the revenue performance of Taiwanese manufacturers focused mainly on the consumer market. From the perspective of Nanya Tech, the combination of falling volume and price reduced its revenue in 4Q21 by approximately 10%, while its operating profit rate fell to 37.5% due to the decline in price quotations. Winbond’s small-capacity (1/2Gb) market was also affected by components mismatch issues, but the impact was relatively small and its 4Q21 revenue fell slightly by close to 4%. PSMC’s (revenue calculation is primarily based on its self-produced standard DRAM products and does not include its DRAM foundry business) revenue fell slightly by approximately 1%. If its foundry revenue is added, then its revenue grew by 6%, reversing a downward trend. This demonstrates that locking-in long-term contracts early is a good strategy.
Faced with reversal in the DRAM market, it is TrendForce’s understanding that the solutions of the three major Taiwanese manufacturers are as follows: Nanya Tech can allocate 20nm production capacity to produce DDR3 (better gross profit) when DDR4 market conditions are poor and invest more resources in the research and development of new 1X nm processes. If yield improves rapidly, this will provide some contribution before the completion of its new factory in 2024. In addition to continuing to focus on niche small-capacity products, Winbond is also strengthening research and development of 25 nm and next-generation 20 nm products, expected to be introduced directly when its Kaohsiung Lujhu factory starts mass production. As for PSMC, by locking clients into long-term contracts, it can plan 2022 production in advance and continue to maximize its greatest advantages. In accordance with market conditions and gross profit levels, it will allocate production capacity between logic IC and memory products.
DRAM contract prices are likely to exit a bullish period that lasted three quarters and be on the downswing in 4Q21 at a QoQ decline of 3-8%, according to TrendForce’s latest investigations. This decline can be attributed to not only the declining procurement activities of DRAM buyers going forward, but also the drop in DRAM spot prices ahead of contract prices. While the buying and selling sides attempt to gain the advantage in future transactions, the DRAM market’s movement in 2022 will primarily be determined by suppliers’ capacity expansion strategies in conjunction with potential growths in demand. The capacity expansion plans of the three largest DRAM suppliers (Samsung, SK hynix, and Micron) for 2022 are expected to remain conservative, resulting in a 17.9% growth in total DRAM bit supply next year. On the demand side, inventory levels at the moment are relatively high. Hence, DRAM bit demand is expected to grow by 16.3% next year and lag behind bit supply growth. TrendForce therefore forecasts a shift in the DRAM market next year from shortage to surplus.
Total DRAM bit supply is projected to grow by 17.9% in 2022 in light of DRAM suppliers’ low inventory levels and resurging demand in the server market
As buyers expanded their DRAM procurement in 1H21 in response to supply chain disruptions, DRAM suppliers were able to register better-than-expected shipment performances and reduce their inventory levels considerably. These suppliers are now bullish on the growth of DRAM bit demand generated by the resurging server market. In particular, while Samsung and SK hynix have marginally increased their wafer input for DRAM products, DRAM suppliers’ process technologies are continuing to migrate towards the 1Z nm and 1alpha nm nodes. TrendForce therefore expects total DRAM bit supply to increase by 17.9% YoY in 2022.
Most of Samsung’s wafer input growth takes place in the P2L fab, which houses relatively large physical spaces. As the prevailing market leader, Samsung will likely continue to increase wafer input for DRAM products going forward. The company’s DRAM bit supply growth for 2022 is expected to reach 19.6%, the highest out of the three dominant suppliers, despite the relatively modest growth in Samsung’s current wafer input, most of which comes from advanced process technologies. It should also be pointed out that Samsung’s newest fab P3L is expected to be fully built by mid-2022. P3L will likely contribute to DRAM production by a limited amount next year but continue to provide further growth for Samsung’s DRAM supply after 2023.
Given the bear market for DDR3 memory, SK hynix will likely speed up the reallocation of wafer capacity from DRAM to logic IC products at its old M10 fab next year. After kicking off DRAM production at its newest M16 fab this year, SK hynix will see its total production capacity for DRAM chips continue expanding in 2022, although the company will also adjust its DRAM output according to the state of the market. SK hynix is currently focused on raising the yield rates of its 1Y nm and 1Z nm process technologies, which will contribute to the forecasted 17.7% increase in SK hynix’s total DRAM bit supply next year.
The latest expansions at Micron’s A3 fab are primarily undertaken as a safeguard against possible wafer losses during the fab’s upcoming transition to next-gen process technologies. Hence, Micron’s total production capacity will unlikely undergo drastic changes for the 2021-2022 period, and growths in its DRAM bit output will be mostly derived from the increased yield of the 1Z nm and the latest 1alpha nm process technologies. In addition, DRAM products manufactured with Micron’s 1alpha nm process technology have been widely adopted by clients, and Micron has been making the fastest progress in terms of process technology migration among the three largest DRAM suppliers. The company is expected to increase its DRAM bit supply by 16.3% next year.
Regarding Taiwanese suppliers, Nanya Tech is expected to finalize the construction of its new fab in 2024, while Winbond’s new fab is expected to kick off only pilot runs in 2H22. Taiwanese suppliers are therefore expected to make very limited contributions to the increase in total DRAM bit supply in 2022.
DRAM bit demand is expected to increase by merely 16.3% in 2022, as the bear market for various products results in a high base period in 2021
The smartphone, server, and notebook computer segments comprise the three largest sources of DRAM consumption. All three product categories have been seeing tremendous growth in 2021, thereby resulting in a high base period for comparison against next year’s figures, meaning that significant YoY growths in these products’ production and shipment, and subsequently their DRAM consumption, for 2022 are unlikely to take place. Furthermore, the ongoing shortage of components has continued to affect various industries and constrain device assembly, leading to a decline in demand for DRAM, since OEMs/ODMs are carrying a relatively high level of DRAM inventory. For 2022, DRAM bit demand is expected to increase by only 16.3% and lag behind DRAM bit supply.
Regarding smartphones, while the shortage of key components such as chipsets and driver ICs remains unresolved, total smartphone shipment for 1Q22, which is already a period of cyclical downturn, will fall below expectations. Although the upcoming release of new models is expected to bring about quarterly increases in smartphone production, TrendForce’s current forecast indicates an annual production volume of about 1.4 billion units for 2022, a modest 3.5% YoY growth. This forecasted figure will likely be subject to additional declines if the shortage of semiconductor components extends further. As such, the main growth driver of mobile DRAM demand in 2022 is expected to be the increase in “content per box” (which refers to the total DRAM contained within each individual handset). For 2022, mobile DRAM will account for approximately 40% of total DRAM bit consumption; there will likely be a 15% increase in mobile DRAM bit demand as well. This increase represents a relatively sluggish performance, as mobile DRAM demand generally increased by more than 20% YoY in previous years.
The server industry likewise faced supply chain-related issues, including disruptions in server assembly operations based in Southeast Asia, as well as shortages of PMICs and passive components. With these issues projected to persist through 2022, total server shipment is expected to increase by 4.3% in 2022, primarily thanks to CSPs’ data center expansions. On the other hand, the rise in Intel Ice Lake CPUs’ market share this year has led DRAM suppliers to manufacture more high-density dies (16Gb mono die) due to the server market’s surging demand for 64GB modules. Once Intel’s next-gen Xeon server CPUs, Sapphire Rapids, enter the market next year, the penetration rate of 64GB server DRAM modules is expected to surpass 60%. Hence, server DRAM bit demand is projected to increase by 20% in 2022, the highest among all DRAM product categories.
Annual shipment of notebook computers for 2022 is projected to reach 222 million units, a nearly 7% YoY decrease, owing to increased vaccination rates in Europe and North America. However, as WFH and distance education become the norm, annual notebook shipment will undergo some growth in the medium to long term, without falling back down to pre-pandemic levels. Although Chromebooks remained the fastest-growing product category among all notebooks in 1H21, demand for Chromebooks has been steadily declining in 2H21 due to the increased Chromebook inventory carried by distribution channels in response to high demand for educational notebooks in 1H21. Instead, demand has shifted to commercial notebooks, which are equipped with more DRAM capacity, and this shift will persist through 2022. Total PC DRAM bit demand is expected to increase by more than 15% next year.
DRAM revenue for 2022 will likely be mostly flat as bit shipment growth offsets decline in quotes
On the whole, DRAM suppliers have performed exceptionally well this year in terms of bit shipments thanks to OEMs’ energetic stock-up activities. The annual total revenue of the DRAM industry is also projected to surpass US$90 billion in 2021 because of the price uptrend and the growth in bit shipments. However, the DRAM market will begin to see prices falling in 4Q21 and a sharpening downtrend in 1H22. The overall ASP of DRAM products for the whole 2022 is projected to register a YoY drop of 15-20%. On the other hand, the YoY growth rates of DRAM suppliers’ bit shipments will also be within a similar range for next year. This means that the bit shipment growth will mostly offset the price decline, thereby keeping the total DRAM revenue for 2022 at a similar level to this year. There are still uncertainties as to the movements of DRAM prices during 2H22. If prices manage to rally, then the annual total DRAM revenue may again reach a new high.
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Driven by such factors as the continued development of autonomous driving technologies and the build-out of 5G infrastructure, the demand for automotive memories will undergo a rapid growth going forward, according to TrendForce’s latest investigations.
Take Tesla, which is the automotive industry leader in the application of autonomous vehicle technologies, as an example. Tesla has adopted GDDR5 DRAM products from the Model S and X onward because it has also adopted Nvidia’s solutions for CPU and GPU. The GDDR5 series had the highest bandwidth at the time to complement these processors. The DRAM content has therefore reached at least 8GB for vehicles across all model series under Tesla.
The Model 3 is further equipped with 14GB of DRAM, and the next-generation of Tesla vehicles will have 20GB. If content per box is used as a reference for comparison, then Tesla far surpasses manufacturers of PCs and smartphones in DRAM consumption. TrendForce forecasts that the average DRAM content of cars will continue to grow in the next three years, with a CAGR of more than 30% for the period.
Based on the existing vehicle models circulating in the global car market, TrendForce estimates that the average DRAM content of cars will reach around 4GB in 2021. The growth in the average DRAM content of cars is expected to be much higher this year than in the past few years. However, car sales are not as great in scale when compared with sales of consumer electronics such as notebook (laptop) computers and smartphones. In 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual global car sales totaled around 94 million vehicle units. Also, cars have less DRAM content compared with servers. Looking at the 2019 data, the distribution of the annual global DRAM consumption shows that the automotive memory segment accounted for less than 2% of the total.
Despite high barrier to entry, memory suppliers have been scrambling for automotive market share due to high profit margins
Compared with other application segments, automotive memory has a much higher standard for durability and reliability over the long term. The operating lifecycle of a car starts at 10 years, so DRAM suppliers basically have to guarantee that their automotive memory solutions have a product lifecycle of at least 7-10 years in order to satisfy the needs related to vehicle maintenance and replacements of parts. From the perspective of suppliers, the selection of process technology for product development and manufacturing is a key decision point when it comes to formulating a strategy for the automotive memory segment. Even as suppliers continuously migrate to the more advanced process technology, they have to ensure product longevity and long-term support for their automotive offerings.
Another issue, which is associated with durability, is operating temperature. Given that countries around the world have their own climates and extreme weather events, automotive DRAM products must have a much wider temperature range with a higher threshold and a lower threshold when compared with other categories of DRAM products, in order to ensure that cars do not break down on the road.
Finally, with density and other specifications being the same, prices of automotive DRAM products are at least 30% higher than prices of conventional commercial DRAM products. For the automotive DRAM products that have met some of the most stringent standards set by the industry, their prices can even be several times higher than prices of conventional commercial DRAM products. In sum, although automotive DRAM products are more difficult and costly to manufacture than other kinds of DRAM products, their high profit margins and large potential market have been attracting DRAM suppliers to now scramble for a piece of the automotive memory segment.
Taiwanese manufacturers show great potential as Winbond thrives in automotive OEM market with its comprehensive product portfolio
Currently, Micron is the leader in automotive memory products with a market share of nearly 50%. The supplier first has the geographical advantage. Moreover, its collaborative relationships with tier-1 automotive suppliers based in Europe and the U.S. are longer in duration compared with its competitors. Micron also has a more comprehensive product lineup for automotive applications, ranging from traditional solutions (e.g., DDR2 to DDR4) to LPDDR solutions (e.g., LPDDR2 to LPDDR5) to GDDR6 solutions. Additionally, Micron provides automakers with other types of memory technologies such as NAND Flash, NOR Flash, and MCP.
Apart from the three dominant DRAM manufacturers, Taiwan-based Nanya Tech and Winbond are continuing to release a wide variety of memory products in response to the growing demand of the automotive industry. In addition to possessing a comprehensive product mix ranging from traditional DDR solutions (e.g., up to DDR4) to low-power solutions (e.g., LPSDR to LPDDR4X), Nanya Tech has also adopted the 20nm node for a significant portion of its manufacturing processes, which are relatively stable in terms of yield rate. On the whole, automotive applications account for nearly 15% of Nanya Tech’s specialty DRAM revenue, while specialty DRAMs account for more than 60% of the company’s total revenue.
Winbond, on the other hand, has been cultivating its presence in the automotive market for more than 10 years. Although the three dominant DRAM manufacturers are ahead of Winbond in terms of process technologies, Winbond’s extensive product portfolio, which includes specialty DRAM, mobile DRAM, NOR Flash, SLC NAND, and MCP, represents a competitive advantage over the vast majority of other manufacturers. Given that the automotive OEM market is both relatively stable and profitable, Winbond has been placing a long-term focus on this market; automotive applications now comprise more than 10% of the company’s total memory revenue, and Winbond’s automotive business will likely continue to expand going forward.
For more information on reports and market data from TrendForce’s Department of Semiconductor Research, please click here, or email Ms. Latte Chung from the Sales Department at email@example.com