Against the backdrop of a difficult 2019 for the semiconductor industry, the image sensor market has remained a bright spot, with orders from smartphone makers continuing to drive demand.
For electronics giant Sony Corp., image sensor demand has been so strong that the company is running its image sensor manufacturing plant 24 hours a day, according to a recent Bloomberg news report. Terushi Shimizu, head of Sony’s semiconductor unit, was quoted as saying, “The electronics giant is more than doubling its capital spending on the business to 280 billion yen ($2.6 billion) this fiscal year and is also building a new plant in Nagasaki that will come online in April 2021.”
Shimizu added, “Judging by the way things are going, even after all that investment in expanding capacity, it might still not be enough,” he said in an interview at the Tokyo headquarters. “We are having to apologize to customers because we just can’t make enough.”
Insatiable demand for high resolution smartphone cameras is bolstering image sensor sales. New smartphones commonly contain as many as three lenses, as smartphone makers bank on high-resolution cameras to drive sales of new phones.
Apple, for instance, has upgraded the image sensors in iPhone 11 and iPhone 11Pro smartphones. Rival Samsung introduced a 108 megapixel camera sensor last August, and Huawei said it would incorporate three camera sensors on its Mate 30 Pro phone.
“The camera has become the biggest differentiator for smartphone brands and everyone wants their social media pictures and videos to look nice,” Masahiro Wakasugi, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, was quoted as saying in the Bloomberg article.
According to the Bloomberg report, semiconductors are now Sony’s most profitable business after the PlayStation. The company in October raised its operating income outlook for the chip unit 38% to 200 billion yen in the year ending March 2020, after second-quarter profit jumped by almost 60%. Sony forecasts revenue from its semiconductor division will climb 18% to 1.04 trillion yen, of which image sensors account for 86%.
In response, Sony has reportedly more than doubled its semiconductor spending to $2.6 billion for the fiscal year 2020. The firm will launch a new manufacturing plant in Nagasaki in April 2021, and increase its monthly image sensor production from 109,000 to 138,000 within two years.
According to the Bloomberg report, Sony is also developing new sensor technologies, including time-of-flight sensors that sends out invisible laser pulses and measures how long they take to bounce back to create detailed depth models. This helps mobile cameras create better portrait photos by more precisely selecting the background to blur out, and it can also be applied in mobile games, where virtual characters can be shown realistically interacting with real-world environments.