The supply of flash memory chips, a principal component in hot-selling tablets and smartphones, will be affected--possibly significantly--by the earthquake in Japan, according to a report.

An 8.9-magnitude earthquake and series of major tsunamis struck Japan on Friday, causing massive damage. The quake struck Friday at 2:46 p.m. local time about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo. Aftershocks registered 7.1, 6.2, and 5.9, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's report. At least 184 deaths have been confirmed and officials say the death toll is likely to rise to more than 1,000.

Over 40 percent of the world's NAND flash and roughly 15 percent of the world's DRAM are manufactured in Japan, according to a report released today by Objective Analysis, a firm that does semiconductor-related market research.

This chip manufacturing map supplied by Objective Analysis shows most of Toshiba&39's flash chip (NAND) production in Yokkaichi, south of the earthquake&39's epicenter. U.S.-based SanDisk also gets flash chips from this location.

(Credit: Objective Analysis)

SanDisk, which sources flash memory from a Toshiba manufacturing facility in Yokkaichi (see map), reported a shutdown but resumed production, according to Jim Handy, the principal analyst at Objective Analysis. (This was confirmed by SanDisk, which has co-ownership of the facility.) That Yokkaichi complex is the largest NAND flash producer in the world, Handy said.

By comparison, in December, Toshiba reported a relatively tiny split-second outage in Yokkaichi that the company said would impact production by as much as 20 percent for up to two months. If the shutdown was longer this time--which Handy believes it was--the effect could be more dire.

"This earthquake was a lot more than milliseconds," Handy said.

Toshiba is still trying to sift through data on the damage. "As with any significant disaster, much information is coming in piecemeal and unconfirmed," Toshiba said in a statement today. Toshiba America Electronic Components "is working with other affiliates and Toshiba Corporation to sift through the information."

The statement continued. "In addition to delivery interruptions that may arise from factory damage, shipments of product may be affected by disruptions in road, rail, sea, and air transportation within and from Japan."

Anecdotal reports are citing a major "Toshiba-SanDisk Japan fab blackout" that will impact NAND Flash market late in the second quarter.

Apple is large consumer of flash memory and has signed half-billion-dollar deals with Toshiba in the past for supply of flash memory. "Apple does this advanced payment thing. They do them in chunks of $500 million at a time," said Handy. But Apple has alternative sources for flash memory such as Samsung and Micron Technology.

Much nearer to the earthquake's epicenter, Fujitsu and Toshiba have wafer fabs in Iwate prefecture, according to a report in EE Times. Fujitsu's Iwate plant manufactures flash microcontrollers and system chips for games machines, digital appliances, and automotive products, according to EE Times.

"Currently, there are indications that the Iwate factory has been affected by a power outage. All factories are being inspected for damage," Toshiba said.

How strong is an 8.9 earthquake "As a matter of comparison, the Taiwan earthquake in 1999 that caused significant damage in Taipei and stopped fabs (chip fabrication plants) in Hsin Chu was a magnitude 7.6, less than one tenth the power of Japan's earthquake. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that stopped production in Silicon Valley measured 6.9, or one hundredth the strength of today's earthquake," according to Objective Analysis.

The report continued. "Prior Japan earthquakes that have caused concerns to the semiconductor industry have been far smaller than today's, including a 5.9 magnitude earthquake in September 2008, two measuring 6.0 and 6.8 in July 2007, and one measuring 6.9 in March of 2007."

Apple has not yet responded to queries.

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