Technology companies come and go, but some are blessed with the foresight to help drive the technological developments that permeate all our lives. One such company is Micron, whose COO, Mark Durcan, tells Lynd Morley why it has been so successful
Future gazers abound in our industry, and we're being promised a near-future of sensor networks and RFID tags that will control or facilitate everything from ordering the groceries, to personalised news projected into our homes or from our mobile phones. This stuff of science fiction, fast becoming science fact, is the visible, sexy end-result of the technology, but what about the guys working at the coal-face, actually producing the tools that enable the dreams to come true?
Micron Technology is one of the prime forces at that leading edge. Among the world's leading providers of advanced semiconductor solutions, Micron manufactures and markets DRAMs, NAND Flash memory, and CMOS image sensors, among other semiconductor components and memory modules for use in computing, consumer, networking and mobile products. And Mark Durcan, Micron's Chief Operating Officer, is confident that the company has been instrumental in helping the gradual realisation of the future gazers' predictions.
“I do think that we are, in many ways, creating the trends, because we've created the technology which enables them,” he comments. “I can give you two prime examples. The first is in the imaging space where, for many decades, charge-coupled devices (CCDs) were the technology of choice for capturing electronic images – mostly because the image quality associated with CCDs was much better than that of CMOS images, which is what Micron builds today.
“Nonetheless, we were strong believers that we could marry very advanced process technology, device design and circuit design techniques with the CMOS imager technology, and really create a platform that enabled a whole new range of applications.
“I think we did that successfully,” he continues, “and the types of applications that were then enabled are really quite stunning. For instance, with CCDs you have to read all the bits out serially, so you can't capture images very quickly. With CMOS imagers you can catch thousands of images per second, which then opens the door to a whole new swathe of applications for the imagers – from very high speed cameras, to electronic shutters that allow you to capture a lot of images, and, by the way, you can do it using far less power. We have already made a major impact in providing image sensors to the notoriously power hungry cameraphone and mobile device based marketplaces, and in the space of two years have become the leading supplier of imaging solutions there. One in three cameraphones now have our sensors and in only two years we have become the largest manufacturer of image sensors in unit terms worldwide. So now, for instance, the technology enables all sorts of security, medical, notebook and automotive applications – you can tune the imagers for a very high dynamic range, low light and low noise at high temperatures which then enables them to operate in a wide variety of environments that CCDs can't function in.
As a result, you can put imaging into a multitude of applications that were never possible before, and I think we really created that movement by creating the high quality sensors that drive those applications.”
The second example Durcan quotes is in the NAND memory arena. “What we've done is probably not apparent to everyone just yet, but, actually, I believe that we've broken Moore's law.
“We are now scaling in the NAND arena much faster than is assumed under Moore's law, and that has really changed the rate at which incremental memory can be used in different and new ways. As a result, I believe it will also pretty quickly change the way computers are architected with respect to memory distribution. So we're going to start seeing changes in what types of memory are used, and location in the memory system, and it's all being driven by a huge productivity growth, associated with NAND flash and the rate at which we're scaling it. We are scaling it faster than anyone else in the world now and we are also well tuned to the increasingly pushy demands of mobile communications, computing and image capture devices.“
The productivity growth Durcan alludes to has been particularly sharp for Micron over the past year. The formation of IM Flash – a joint venture with Intel – in January 2006 has seen the companies bringing online a state-of-the-art 300mm NAND fabrication facility in Virginia, while another 300mm facility in Utah is on track to be in production early next year. The venture also produces NAND through existing capacity at Micron's Idaho fabrication facility. And just to keep things even busier, the partners introduced last July the industry's first NAND flash memory samples built on 50 nanometre process technology. Both companies are now sampling 4 gigabit 50nm devices, with plans to produce a range of products, including multi-level cell NAND technology, starting next year. At the same time, Intel and Micron announced in November 2006 their intention to form of a new joint venture in Singapore (where Micron has a long history of conducting business) that will add a fourth fabrication facility to their NAND manufacturing capability.
In June 2006, Micron also announced the completion of a merger transaction with memory card maker Lexar Media, a move that helped Micron expand from its existing business base into consumer products aimed at digital cameras, mobile computing and MP3 or portable video playing devices.
“Our merger with Lexar is interesting for a number of different reasons,” Durcan comments. “Certainly it brings us closer to the consumer, as, historically, our products tended to be sold through OEMs. But, in addition, it provides the ability to build much more of a memory system, as opposed to stand-alone products, given that Lexar delivers not only NAND memory, but also a NAND controller that manipulates the data in different ways and puts it in the right format for the system that you're entering. Working closely with Lexar, we want to ensure that this controller functionality is tied to the new technologies we want to adopt on the NAND front, making sure that they work well together, thus enabling more rapid introduction of new technologies and getting them to market more quickly.”
The considerable activity of the past twelve months clearly reflect Micron's view of itself as a company that is in the business of capturing, moving and storing data, and aiming for the top of the tree in each section. On the 'capturing' front, for instance, Durcan notes: “We've been very successful from a technology development perspective, and I think we're pretty much the unquestioned leader in the image quality and imaging technology arena. As mentioned we also happen to be the world's biggest imaging company now – it happened more quickly than any of us thought it would, but it was driven by great technology. So we have plenty of challenges now in making sure that we optimise the opportunity we've created to develop new and more diversified applications.”
Certainly, the company is willing to put its developments to the most stringent of tests. All of Micron's senior executives, including Durcan, recently drove four Micron off-road vehicles in an exceptionally rugged all-terrain race in California, the Baja 1000, digitally capturing and storing more than 140 hours of video from the race, using Micron's DigitalClarity image sensors and Lexar Professional CompactFlash memory cards specially outfitted for its vehicles. All the technology performed remarkably well, as did Micron's CEO Steve Appleton, who won the contest's Wide Open Baja Challenge class some 30 minutes ahead of the next closest competitor.
Appleton's energetic and non-risk-averse approach to both the Baja 1000 (in some ways the American version of the Paris Dakar Rally) and to life in general (he is reputed to have once crashed a plane during a stunt flight, but still proceeded with a keynote speech just a few days later) is reflected in an undoubted lack of stuffiness within Micron.
Certainly, the company has taken a certain level of risk in pioneering technology developments. RFID is a case in point. “Sometimes,” Durcan explains, “the technology was there, but the market was slow to develop. RFID is a good example. Today, Micron has the largest RFID patent portfolio in the world. We certainly developed a lot of the technology that is now incorporated in global RFID standards, but when we first developed it, the threat of terrorism, for instance, was less obvious, so we simply couldn't get these tags going that are now absolutely commonplace. I suppose you could say we've been a little ahead of our time.”
The company is also managed by a comparatively young executive team, with a very non-hierarchical approach to business. “I do believe that we have a certain mindset that keeps us pretty flexible,” Durcan explains, “and one our strongest cards is that we have some really great people, with a great work ethic. At the same time, we drive a lot of decisions down into the company. We're probably less structured in our decision making than a lot of companies.
“So, we try to get the right people in the room (not necessarily in the room actually, but on the same phone line!) to make a decision about what is the right space to operate in, then we can turn it over to people who can work the details.
“We try to get to that right space, at a high level, through good communication and then drive it down. It is the opposite of what I believe can happen when companies grow, become compartmentalised, and tend to get more and more siloed.
“There is also very strong synergy between the different activities within Micron,” he continues. “In each case we're really leveraging advanced process technology, advanced testing technology, and large capital investments in large markets. There are a lot of things that are similar and they do all play closely with each other.”
Micron's people are, in fact, a truly international bunch, recruited globally, and bringing a great diversity of skills and approaches to the company. “I think that we are one of the most global semiconductor companies in the world,” Durcan says, “despite being a relatively young company. We recently started manufacturing our sensors in Italy and have design centres in Europe, both in the UK and Norway, which are expanding their operations. In fact we are now manufacturing on most continents – except in Africa and Antartica – and we have design teams right around the world who work on a continuous 24hr cycle handing designs from site to site. We've tried to grow a team that is very diverse, and leverage the whole globe as a source of locating the best talent we can.”
So, does all this talent produce its own crop of future gazers? Durcan believes they have their fair share. “There certainly are people at Micron who are very good at seeing future applications. My personal capabilities are much more at the technology front end. I can see it in terms of 'we can take this crummy technology and really make it great'. Then I go out and talk to other people in the company who say 'that's fantastic, if we can do that, then we can...'. It really does take a marriage of the whole company, and a lot of intellectual horsepower.”
That horsepower has resulted in a remarkable number of patents for Micron. Durcan comments: “The volume and quality of new, innovative technology that Micron has been creating is captured by our patent portfolio. It's an amazing story, and something I'm really proud of. The point is, Micron is a pretty good-sized company, but we're not large by global standards – we're roughly 23,500 employees worldwide. Yet we are consistently in the top five patent issuers in the US.
“I feel the more important part of the patent story, however, is that when people go out and look at the quality of patent portfolios, they typically rank Micron as the highest quality patent portfolio in the world – bar none. I think that's pretty impressive and speaks volumes about the quality our customers benefit from.”
Lynd Morley is editor of European Communications