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DRAM: Out with the bath effect water

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Those of us in the semiconductor industry refer to something called the 'bath tub effect'. When a product is launched, it's expensive, but as as demand grows the price drops. Eventually, demand drops off and the part becomes more expensive again. The result is a flat-bottomed sales curve, hence the reference bath tubs. It's a pattern that has emerged for most products during the 80s has remaind the same for most of the 90s, while products had a lifespan of around six years. However, as the memory market has worsened, a fundamental change has taken place that is often overlooked. The intense competition and the staggering losses incurred by DRAM vendors has led them on an endless search for any value added product. Since all the manufacturers are trying to do the same, this isn't easy. We can perhaps illustrate this and point out its relevance by looking at the fast (25nS) 256Kx16 EDO DRAM. The 3Dfx Voodoo 2 card, when launched, needed 24 pieces of these 4Mb memory chips to make a 12MB add-in card. At that time the only manufacturer of these speed-rated devices was Silicon Magic. The price was an unbelievable $3.50-plus (compared to a 16Mb SDRAM selling for less than $2). But within eight weeks there were another five suppliers and the price had fallen to its current low of just over $1. Guess what? Yup, all of the suppliers have now stopped making the part. When current stocks are consumed (probably within the next month) the market price will rocket up. Here's some other similar parts: 64Mb FPM DRAM, 64Mb EDO DRAM, 16Mb EDO DRAM in TSOP packaging. In fact, the highest price for any 64Mb DRAM today is the FPM (Fast Page Mode) device which sells for over $14! The losses being made by the Korean and Japanese manufacturers is preventing them from being able to invest in a wide range of different devices, nor can they afford to speculate on making parts that may not sell quickly. Today, buyers have not seen any major impact of the Japanese/Korean losses but as we move into 1999 we will see these suppliers have a more narrow product range forcing them to drop unpopular or slow-moving parts more quickly. This means that product managers at both the supplier and the customer will have to work more closely to ensure that the closest possible product matches take place. The bathtub has become shorter and steeper, the average product life span has now shrunk to less than two years (and often much less). I predict we'll see the re-emergence of brokers and dealers as a major source of redundant and difficult-to-source parts as this effect takes a stronger hold in 1999. Desperate purchasing managers will struggle with insouciant suppliers for parts that have been abruptly brought to a production halt. You heard it here first, but I can already feel the vibration of the feet of an entire DRAM industry stampeding towards the Holy Grail of direct RAMBUS. If you build PCs then you might be pleased to hear this. But if you have just designed a network card, VME bus board, industrial controller or other product that needs a two year supply of 10nS PC66 SDRAM then I would be looking around for a friendly broker... ®

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