SONY image sensors. Photo: itdigit

TOKYO – The market for image sensors has become extremely competitive as Sony fights to maintain its lead, Samsung seeks to extend recent gains, Omnivision establishes itself as a strong number 3 and Canon introduces impressive new technology.

Consumers should benefit while American high-tech nationalists fret over Asia’s overwhelming presence in the market.

Sony, which has dominated the image sensor market for many years, has by its own calculation lost 10 percentage points of market share, dropping from 53% to 43% over the past two years.

To reverse this decline, it has launched an aggressive campaign to expand capacity, upgrade its technology and diversify from smartphones into automotive, virtual reality and other applications

According to estimates issued by various market research organizations, Samsung has moved up from 18% to at least 22% of the market, propelled by its own cellphone operations, capacity expansion and new customers. Its share of the smartphone market may be as high as 26%. Like Sony, it sees a bright future in assisted driving.

OmniVision has increased its market share from just under 10% to as much as 14% as a result of new product development and opportunities in China. An American company with a presence in Europe and Asia, it is now owned by China’s Will Semiconductor.

Several other image sensor makers have single-digit market shares, including ST Micro (France), OnSemi (USA), SK hynix (South Korea), GalaxyCore and Smartsens (China), and Panasonic and Canon (Japan).

Sony expects the image sensor market to grow at a combined annual growth rate of approximately 9% through 2030 driven by high-end smartphones, advanced driver assistance systems, industrial applications and security.

Applying this growth rate to a current market value of $20 billion indicates there’s a lot of business to fight for.

On June 17, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced plans to grant up to ¥476 billion ($3.5 billion) in subsidies to Japan Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing (JASM), a joint venture between TSMC, Sony and Toyota Group company Denso, to support its semiconductor manufacturing project on the island of Kyushu. 

Construction of the factory, which is situated near Sony’s own image sensor production facilities, began in April. The Japanese government will pick up about 40% of the total cost of the project, which is estimated at 1.16 trillion yen (US$8.6 billion).

Products are likely to include image sensor data signal processors, automotive ICs and other logic devices, with priority on supply to Sony and other customers in Japan. Operations are scheduled to begin in December 2024.

According to the companies, Sony will own something less than 20% of JASM; and Denso, something more than 10%. Most likely, this will leave TSMC with more than two-thirds ownership of what will essentially be a specialized foundry.

The Sony logo is displayed at the company’s building in Tokyo on April 28, 2021. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP)

Meanwhile, Sony itself is planning image sensor-related capital spending of 900 billion yen ($6.7 billion) in the three years to March 2024 – a 55% increase over the previous three years. This includes the expansion of Fab 5 in Nagasaki, which began operations a little more than a year ago.

The resulting increase in production is expected to contribute to a 37% increase in the sales of Sony’s Imaging & Sensing Solutions business this fiscal year. This should lift its share of the image sensor market to 49%, the first step toward management’s goal of 60% in the year to March 2026.

To achieve this, Sony is developing imaging technologies for more sophisticated smartphone cameras, interchangeable lens cameras, advanced driver assistance systems and eventually autonomous driving, industrial applications, augmented reality and virtual reality.

Evolving high-end smartphone cameras will require higher resolution, higher speed to support video, and higher magnification zoom.

Advanced driver assistance systems include six to eight front, surround and rear-view cameras per car. Autonomous driver service vehicles will require 16 to 20 cameras each with higher resolution and synchronization with light detection and ranging.

Industrial applications include production line monitoring, product inspection, sorting at logistics bases, recycled materials sorting and predictive maintenance.

Augmented reality and virtual reality applications include head-mounted displays, AR glasses, iris recognition, gaze detection, hand tracking, human/space recognition, and SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping).

R&D, including work on the integration of image sensing and artificial intelligence, will be carried out in Japan, China, the US and Germany.

The Japanese press has reported that the managers of Sony’s image sensors business feel that they are under siege – as they should, considering what Samsung and other competitors are doing.

Samsung’s market share gains can be attributed to lower prices, higher volumes, improving technology and a low-end to high-end product range favored by Chinese smartphone makers Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi.  

The Samsung logo. Photo: AFP / Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto

In contrast, Sony has suffered from the loss of Huawei’s smartphone business, which had been a major customer.

Samsung has been quick to upgrade its image sensors, launching the world’s first 100MP (megapixel) smartphone camera in 2019 and the first 200MP model in 2021. The 200MP model stands out for its performance in low-light environments.

Miniaturization is another Samsung forte. Its newest 200MP image sensor, released last month, is 20% smaller than its predecessor.

On top of that, Samsung is reportedly working on an image sensor with more than 500MP that would match the resolution of the human eye.

In the auto market, Samsung offers high-definition rear-view and surround-view monitors.

OmniVision has a more extensive automotive imaging product line that includes surround-view and rear-view monitors and e-mirrors, plus driver-monitoring and other in-vehicle monitoring systems. Exterior functions include lane recognition, vehicle and pedestrian detection and covering of blind spots.

Omnivision logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

OmniVision also designs image sensors and related ICs for cell phone, virtual reality and artificial reality, portable computer, surveillance, industrial and medical applications. Its product line complements that of its parent company, Will Semiconductor.

Will designs discrete semiconductor devices, power management and other integrated circuits as well as capacitors and other passive components used in mobile communications, vehicle electronics, security and other applications.

The products mentioned above are CMOS image sensors, the most common type of image sensor now produced. CMOS (pronounced see-moss) stands for complementary metal oxide semiconductor, which is the technology used to make microprocessors, memory chips and most other ICs.

As explained in Tokyo Electron’s online Nanotech Museum, a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor has a photodiode and a CMOS transistor switch for each pixel, allowing the pixel signals to be amplified individually.

A pixel (picture element) is a small light-sensitive component made (usually) of silicon. A pixel grid provides data to an image sensor via the photoelectric effect, in which light energy causes the emission of electrons from the silicon.

But there are alternative technologies.

Last December, Japanese camera maker Canon announced that it had developed a new single-photon avalanche diode-type image sensor that can “see in the dark” – can take high-resolution color photos in the darkest night or in other low-light environments in which CMOS image sensors do not work as well.

The Canon logo in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: AFP / Robyn Beck

As explained by Canon:

A SPAD sensor is a uniquely designed image sensor in which each pixel possesses an electronic element. When a single light particle, called a photon, reaches a pixel it is multiplied – as if creating an “avalanche” – and that results in a single large electrical pulse. With CMOS sensors, the readout of the accumulated electronic charge contains electronic noise, which diminishes image quality, due to the process by which accumulated light is measured.

According to the press release, the new sensor combines a tiny SPAD sensor with a proprietary pixel architecture “capable of capturing the world’s highest resolution of 3.2-megapixel images – a higher resolution than Full HD.”  It “can capture the same images as a conventional CMOS sensor while requiring only one-tenth of imaging area.”

Canon’s new SPAD sensor is particularly suitable for security cameras, self-driving vehicles, medical and scientific instruments, low-light industrial applications and augmented reality. Production is scheduled to begin by the end of this calendar year.

Canon has competed with Sony in the digital camera market since the 1990s. It may now give it a run for its money across a wide range of image sensor applications.

Aware of the threat, Sony is also working on SPAD technology. And the Koreans and Chinese should not assume that they are destined to inherit the market.

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