Culture & People

“Dreaming of the Best DRAM”, Toward the No.1 in Technology: Head of DRAM Development Seon Yong Cha

By November 5, 2020 November 26th, 2020 No Comments

“Toward the best DRAM”, the Architect for the Future to Lead the Growth of SK hynix

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SK hynix’s DRAM business has been evaluated as a driving force that has led the company’s rapid growth in recent years and as a key business representing the company. Although SK hynix’s DRAM business ranks second in sales and global market share, it is fiercely competing for the No.1 position in terms of product quality and technology. The key organization leading this high level of technology is the DRAM Development organization. This organization is in charge of developing core products and various derivative products for each technology state and commercializing them through internal certification and customer certification within a given time.

As the Head of the organization responsible for an important duty, Seon Yong Cha of DRAM Development is walking toward the future step by step with confidence, instead of being overwhelmed.

“We always try hard to be the best, but we are staying in second place in terms of scale in reality. If we secure the ‘best technology’, our overall competitiveness including scale will increase, so we are thinking hard to figure out how we can take the ‘first place in technology’.”

As effort comes with achievements, SK hynix is continuing its growth this year, focusing on high-density memory and HBM2E.

“As its name suggests, high-density memory has high density, which means that it must have both good quality and yield for the high density. SK hynix has secured sufficient competitiveness, as well as an impressive market share. In particular, among DRAM products, the quality of server DRAM is the most important, and SK hynix maintains a high share of the overall server products including high-density memory. (1st place with 40% of market share in the first half of 2020, according to market research institute Omdia)

HBM2E products are also leading the market. Both quality and performance are currently recognized by customers, and we expect to continue this trend in the future. Also, we are giving shape to plans to strengthen the competitiveness of mobile and graphic related products.”

Cha also expressed his anticipation for the automotive business. Although SK hynix’s market share in the automotive semiconductor field is not yet high, he expected that meaningful results can be achieved if the company uses its long-accumulated know-how for memory semiconductor technology.

“In the semiconductor business, competitiveness in the automotive sector is crucial. This is because the quality requirements for products in this sector are very high. The automotive business is expected to upgrade SK hynix’s overall product quality and production system. If this business is well established, it can serve as leverage for the quality of all other DRAM products. In addition, it will open a new path for the DRAM business as a premium product lineup.”

Regarding the business situation in the second half of this year, some forecast that “the company’s performance will be in a bearish trend, as customers’ DRAM inventory is piled up”. On the contrary, others expect that “the performance will improve next year due to shortages in supply”. Also, the recent global business environment which became more volatile suggests that there are more things to consider in business.

“To respond to changes in the business environment, we are working to establish a solid cooperative relationship with our customers. Although many different variables are affecting the business, as the demand for memory semiconductor continues, we will do our best not to miss out a market we can target.”

Semiconductor industry is a typical “cycle industry” where boom and bust repeat. Because the industry is also sensitive to external variables, it is necessary to constantly monitor the global situation and market conditions to respond proactively. One of the important tasks is to reduce the impact of the industry situation and external variables and lay the foundation for operating the business stably. Cha is currently preparing for this as well.

“When considering the nature of the semiconductor industry, securing cost competitiveness means the strength to withstand changes in the external market environment. Recently, a task force (TF) to secure cost competitiveness was formed to establish a plan. We are working on many action plans to secure the competitiveness for No.1.”

“Limits Exist to be Overcome”: Cha as an Analytical Strategist

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As some say that the technology gap within the leading group of the DRAM business has almost disappeared, it is most important for SK hynix to solidify its technological leadership as a company belongs to the leading group. In terms of securing core technology, SK hynix has achieved some great results by introducing the concept of “platform”, starting from 1xnm (first-generation 10 nm-class products). Platform means developing a technological system that can be applied for a long time to many generations, instead of developing a technology that can be applied only to one generation.

“Adopting the platform concept has the advantage of reducing trial and error when developing the next generation of technology that shares the same platform, even though it costs for investment when the initial platform changes. Thanks to this advantage, we were able to successfully and efficiently develop various products from 1xnm (first-generation 10nm-class products) to 1ynm (second-generation 10nm-class products), then to 1znm (third-generation 10nm-class products).”

The next step after securing the core technology is to apply this technology to multiple products of the same generation to secure competitiveness in the performance aspects of each product, such as power, speed, quality, and high density. While this process by SK hynix has not been entirely satisfactory, Cha was confident that it is now changing.

“Since this year, we have subdivided the product performance into eight areas. We have established and are pursuing plans for each area to secure the competitiveness necessary for each area. The technology level for each performance area might be relatively different from each other, but we aim to pursue the highest level of technical competitiveness in all areas within the next few years.”

It is getting more difficult to continue Moore’s Law1 in the semiconductor industry. There is also a prospect that the limit of the miniaturization of DRAM is approaching in the industry. Nevertheless, Cha expressed his firm determination to overcome the limits with tenacity, rather than preventing the possibility of development due to the “limits”.

“I don’t want to describe it as a ‘limit’. In the past, there were times when people thought 100nm was the limit, and then 20nm was considered to be the limit. Nevertheless, overcoming the limit every time is the process of DRAM development until today. The current difficulties are also barriers to be overcome, which means that we have not reached the limit. I believe that innovative technologies will soon be developed to break through the barrier which is currently considered as a limit.”

The structure of the semiconductor industry is also changing rapidly. While PC manufacturers were the main customers in the past, various types of IT companies such as mobile companies and internet data center operators are newly included in the customer group, diversifying the requirements.

In addition, the recent semiconductor industry is showing a wide range of change, and there is a prospect that a complete change can be made in the future, not only in terms of the environment of competition, but also the competitors themselves. Cha emphasized the necessity of identifying this rapidly changing trend of the semiconductor industry and responding quickly.

“In the past, when new technology was developed, the profits were made by reducing the cost of core products which has a high proportion in sales. Now, however, it is more like making profits through using the premium by securing a wide range of lineups of derivative products that will meet the different needs of customers. In fact, the share of derivative products in DRAM sales has grown significantly compared to several years ago.

In more and more cases, customers are demanding customized memory products, so it is not enough to make a good product according to the defined specifications. The process of planning products that customers need and commercializing them has become more important. It is time to preemptively establish a system to respond to these changes in the market.

In fact, there are risks in the customized memory business. This is because if the commercialization plan falls through during the development process, you will have to bear as much damage as the resource used. Nevertheless, I think we should keep trying. Whatever changes are made to the market, the key is the customer. In the future, the business should proceed in the direction of improving customer value, even if it carries some risks.”

If such change keeps accelerating, it is expected that more driving force will be given to the establishment of a “product-oriented system” that SK hynix is currently focusing on. DRAM Development is also preparing the system in line with this trend.

“The product-oriented system is a concept that started with a question, ‘how will we reflect the customer needs that are becoming more diverse, from the product level to secure competitiveness?’. In the past, when a core technology’s level was raised, you could just use that technology to make most of your products. In recent years, however, the importance of derivative products has increased, so different and a lot of element technologies are now required for each product. Also, it is necessary to prepare the element technologies in advance. For this reason, from this year, we are establishing and following a roadmap that determines the element technologies needed for each product and defines schedules for development and verification.”

The diversification of customers also means that collaboration with customers has become important. Due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, however, communication with customers is not easy. What kind of efforts is SK hynix making for smooth customer relationship, in this changing environment?

“As customers’ systems become more complex and sophisticated, the process of evaluating and analyzing data at the time when our products were mounted on the customer system, and finding and solving defects in advance is becoming more important. In particular, in the post-COVID-19 era when the ‘contactless’ environment will be generalized, it is also necessary to prepare a customer communication system suitable for this.

To realize this, SK hynix is establishing a system that allows real-time online testing and analysis, without having to dispatch engineers to the field. We will continue to think more about strengthening collaboration with our customers in the future.”

A Warm-hearted Mentor for Members

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Since taking charge of DRAM Development, Cha has been putting a lot of effort into improving the organizational culture. One of the representative cases is that he streamlined the internal certification process after a technology is developed, and this reduced the stress of the employees caused by various issues.

Internal product certification is one of the core tasks of DRAM Development. This is a very important task to keep the delivery schedule promised with customers. It takes over a month for one internal certification process, and if it fails, it needs more time and effort, which means more stress for employees. Cha thought that it is necessary to increase the success rate for certification first to improve work efficiency.

“First, what I suggested as a goal was to significantly increase the success rate of the first certification. To achieve this, I asked Process Integration (PI) to work to dramatically increase the wafer yield in the first test. Also, Product Engineering (PE) worked to reinforce the pre-test quality inspection system. Product Management Office (PMO) responsible for organizing the overall certification, materials, and development process, has been reinforced with stronger authority, so that the entire development process can be managed more thoroughly. Thanks to these efforts, the certification success rate this year has improved significantly.”

In the second half of this year, he focused on creating a new vision for DRAM Development from the perspective of the employees, and shared it with them recently. The new vision is “Experts group who continuously grow through No.1 brand products”. It shows his hope that the members feel proud of making “No.1 brand products”.

“Visions we’ve seen so far were more about the organization. It was a way to set the future orientation of the organization, not members, and to think about how to achieve that goal; however, as it is difficult to identify the organization with the individual members, I thought, ‘Will the members feel thrilled with this kind of vision?’

What I was trying to do this time was to create a vision that makes the members’ hearts beat. I shared the vision with the members, but it hasn’t been completed yet. I’d like to continue to communicate with the members to create a vision that can be shared with everyone.”

Cha enjoys meeting and chatting with the members. He often meets in small groups of four to five people and listens to them. This is because it allows him to understand other members and find various ways to support them. It is not as often as before due to COVID-19, but he plans to increase contact points with the members in the future.

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Lastly, the newsroom team asked Cha to define himself, as one of leaders at SK hynix.

“I want to become a leader who put the head together to get an answer with the members. Rather than being a difficult leader asking for a well-organized report on the solution when a problem arises, I’d like to be a friendly leader who can think of ideas together and solve the problem together.”


1Moore’s Law: Moore’s law is the observation that the density of microchips doubles every 24 months.