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Asia's DRAM producers gear up

Asia/Pacific semiconductor producers will increase 64-bit DRAM production to challenge the U.S. lead.

The United States' eight-percent lead in the 1996 worldwide semiconductor market is under siege. Asia/Pacific semiconductor suppliers' market share may have dropped to 9.4 percent in 1996 from 11.8 percent in 1995, but producers are not discouraged.

NEC, Toshiba, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Mitsubishi are increasing their combined output of 64-megabit DRAM memory chips to 7.5 million units by the end of 1997, up from 700,000 last year.

The price of DRAM dove 75 percent in 1996, bolstering the growth of the semiconductor market as more and more PCs included 16-bit DRAM. Falling prices, however, led to an overall decline in revenues, according to a report from Dataquest.

"The prices were artificially high for the past three and a half years prior to 1996 because of a shortage," said Dataquest memory analyst, Jim Handy. In late 1995, as 16-bit DRAM became more widely used, "PC manufacturers wanted to get rid of excess inventory [of one- and two-bit DRAM]. They panicked an dropped prices. This became a vicious circle. The more they lowered their prices, the [fewer] orders they got," he added.

DRAM-focused vendors--including many of the Asia/Pacific suppliers--were hit the hardest as revenues were smothered by falling prices. The Asia/Pacific market share fell from 11.8 percent in 1995 to 9.4 percent in 1996.

But the price drop did not affect all producers.

U.S. suppliers regained the lead in 1996 over Japanese counterparts by almost eight percent. Intel, with 12 percent of world market share, held its number one position for the fifth consecutive year as revenue grew 29 percent to $16.9 million.

Only two of the top ten producers showed growth in 1996.

SGS-Thompson, which held the number ten slot, had a revenue increase of 24 percent, to $4.2 million.

The biggest losers were Samsung with a revenue loss of 26 percent; Toshiba with a 21-percent loss; Mitsubishi with a 20-percent loss; and Fujitsu, which dropped 19 percent.

"DRAM revenue growth had been the major factor in the semiconductor revenue upswing from 1993 through 1995; DRAM continued as the revenue driver in 1996 as DRAM revenue declined by nearly 40 percent in 1996," said Gene Norrett, vice president and director of Dataquest's Semiconductor Worldwide program, in a written statement.

The five companies that plan to increase 64-bit DRAM production all posted revenue losses for 1996, ranging from NEC with a 6-percent loss to Toshiba's 21-percent loss. Together they hold a 25 percent share of the world DRAM market. The five companies said last week that they are cutting back on 16-megabit DRAM production.

"After a three-year hiatus in which prices were abnormally high, they have come back down to normal," Handy said. "This will fuel broader acceptance of DRAM in PCs and set-top boxes." The semiconductor market is growing, added Handy. He expects a $155 billion market for 1997, up from his estimate of $137 billion for 1996.