Sometimes, it's easy to forget that what's bad news for buyers is actually good news for the industry. DRAM pricing is one such case. Buyers will be disappointed to learn that DRAM price reductions are going to slow down and eventually stall. Chip makers — DRAM vendors, in particular — can, for the moment, breathe a sigh of relief.
But that relief looks to be short-lived. The reason DRAM prices are firming up, according to IHS iSuppli, is a lag in migration to newer production technology. That mean chip makers, at some point, are going to have to up the ante.
The DRAM industry has been aggressively pursuing reductions in lithography geometries since 2010. That has allowed manufacturers to produce more DRAMs per wafer. These higher volumes have enabled supply to keep pace with — and, in some cases, outstrip — demand. DRAM prices dropped by 14.2 percent in Q1 of this year, says IHS iSuppli, and by 12 percent in Q2. The rate of decrease is expected to plateau to an average of 3 percent to 4 percent until the end of 2012.
DRAM manufacturers have so far been able to remain profitable during this period because of the increased efficiencies they've gained by investing in production technology. But like pricing, that's going to come to an end. Lithography-geometry reduction rates have apparently peaked and are going to begin to decline, according to IHS iSuppli:
- Average lithography geometry for global DRAM manufacturing shrunk by a near-term high of 5.6 percent in the first quarter. However, that rate of shrinkage will decrease to 5.2 percent in the second quarter, to 4.8 percent in the third quarter and to 3.7 percent in the fourth quarter. After declining to 2.9 percent in the first quarter of 2012, lithography will shrink in a range of 3.8 percent to 4 percent for the remainder of the year. “In the wake of forcefully pursuing lithography reductions in late 2010 and early 2011, the DRAM industry is expected to employ a less aggressive approach to lithography migration throughout the rest of the year,” said Dee Nguyen, memory analyst at IHS. “DRAM capital expenditures are expected decline by 30 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. As a result, the rate of DRAM cost reductions also will slow during the remainder of 2011 and 2012.
So at some point, chip makers are going to start investing in manufacturing technology again — IHS iSuppli says that'll be 2013. So for buyers, prices are going to continue to decline, just not as quickly. The pace may pick up again as chip makers begin a new round of capital spending a couple of years down the line.