Duel between Sony and Samsung for the image sensor head

TOKYO – The image sensor market has become fiercely competitive as Sony battles to maintain its lead, Samsung looks to extend recent gains, Omnivision establishes itself as a solid No. 3 and Canon introduces impressive new technology.

Consumers stand to benefit as American high-tech nationalists worry about Asia’s overwhelming presence in the market.

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

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

According to estimates published by various market research organizations, Samsung has grown from 18% to at least 22% of the market, propelled by its own mobile operations, capacity expansion and new customers. Its share of the smartphone market can reach 26%. Like Sony, he sees a bright future for assisted driving.

OmniVision increased its market share from just under 10% to 14% due to new product development and opportunities in China. An American company present in Europe and Asia, it now belongs to the Chinese Will Semiconductor.

Several other image sensor manufacturers hold single-digit market shares, including ST Micro (France), OnSemi (US), SK hynix (South Korea), GalaxyCore and Smartsens (China), as well as Panasonic and Canon (Japan).

Sony expects the image sensor market to grow at a combined annual growth rate of around 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 that there is plenty of business to be made.

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

Construction of the factory, located near Sony’s image sensor production facilities, began in April. The Japanese government will bear about 40% of the total cost of the project, estimated at 1,160 billion yen ($8.6 billion).

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

According to the companies, Sony will own less than 20% of JASM; and Denso, anything over 10%. Most likely, this will leave TSMC with more than two-thirds ownership of what will essentially be a specialty 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 forecasts capital expenditures related to image sensors of 900 billion yen ($6.7 billion) in the three years to March 2024, a 55% increase over previous three years. This includes the expansion of Fab 5 in Nagasaki, which began operations just over a year ago.

The resulting increase in production is expected to contribute to a 37% increase in sales for Sony’s Imaging & Sensing Solutions business this fiscal year. This is expected to bring its share of the image sensor market to 49%, the first step towards management’s goal of 60% by 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 reality. Virtual.

The evolution of high-end cameras for smartphones 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 cameras per car. Self-driving service vehicles will require 16-20 cameras each with higher resolution and synchronization with light detection and ranging.

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

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

R&D, including work on the integration of image sensing and artificial intelligence, will be conducted in Japan, China, the United States and Germany.

The Japanese press has reported that those responsible for Sony’s image sensor business are feeling under siege – as they should, given what Samsung and other competitors are doing.

Samsung’s market share gains can be attributed to lower prices, higher volumes, improved technology and a low-end to high-end product mix favored by Chinese manufacturers of Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi smartphones.

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

On the other hand, Sony suffered from the loss of Huawei’s smartphone business, which was a major customer.

Samsung has been quick to upgrade its image sensors, releasing 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 strength of Samsung. Its new 200MP image sensor, released last month, is 20% smaller than its predecessor.

On top of that, Samsung is reportedly working on a 500MP+ image sensor that would match the resolution of the human eye.

In the automotive market, Samsung offers high-definition reversing and surround-view monitors.

OmniVision offers a broader automotive imaging product line that includes surround and rearview monitors and electronic rearview mirrors, as well as driver monitoring systems and other in-vehicle monitoring systems. Exterior features include lane recognition, vehicle and pedestrian detection, and blind spot coverage.

Omnivision logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

OmniVision also designs image sensors and associated integrated circuits for mobile phones, virtual reality and artificial reality, portable computers, 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, automotive electronics, security and other applications.

The products mentioned above are CMOS image sensors, the most common type of image sensor currently produced. CMOS (pronounced see-moss) stands for Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor, which is the technology used to make microprocessors, memory chips, and most other integrated circuits.

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 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 electrons to be emitted from 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 other low light environments. in which CMOS image sensors do not perform as well.

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

As Canon explains:

A SPAD sensor is a uniquely designed image sensor in which each pixel has an electronic element. When a single light particle, called a photon, hits a pixel, it is multiplied – as if creating an “avalanche” – and this results in a single large electrical impulse. With CMOS sensors, the reading of accumulated electronic charge contains electronic noise, which decreases 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 – higher resolution than Full HD.” It “can capture the same images as a conventional CMOS sensor while requiring only one-tenth the imaging area.”

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

Canon has been competing with Sony in the digital camera market since the 1990s. It can now get its money’s worth in a wide range of image sensor applications.

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

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Michael C. Garrison