Flux in imaging sensor industry: change or die

SAN JOSE, CA AND ROCHESTER, NY—Flux in the imaging sensor industry is exponentially ramping up competitive price pressure, causing companies to scrap older business models.

SAN JOSE, CA AND ROCHESTER, NY—Flux in the imaging sensor industry is exponentially ramping up competitive price pressure, causing companies to scrap older business models. Large imaging companies must adjust or be acquired, says Fas Mosleh, director of marketing and business development of the Mobile Imaging division of Kodak Image Sensor Solutions (ISS; Rochester, NY).

Mosleh’s comments were in response to a media and industry analyst reception in San Jose, where semiconductor manufacturer Micron Technology launched a new independent identity for its Imaging business—Aptina Imaging, creating a separate division and new identity for Micron’s CMOS imaging business.

Aptina Imaging, previously a division of Micron Technology, will concentrate exclusively on pixel performance in CMOS-based still and video imaging capabilities for mobile phones, digital still cameras, security and surveillance cameras, PC cameras, and automotive applications. While Aptina will continue to leverage Micron’s strengths in CMOS manufacturing, operating as an independent division within Micron will allow Aptina to better focus on its expertise. It also provides Aptina with more manufacturing flexibility, as well as associated cost and operational control benefits.

In recent years, the trend of independent component companies merging with or spinning-out from manufacturing-giant parents has churned up the industry, says Mosleh. “The industry is in upheaval, but these developments raise the standard of our game in general.” Kodak ISS, with its mainstream success, is feeling the competitive pressure from these multiple start-ups attacking the space. “The driver of this change is mostly extreme-value consciousness on the part of the consumer,” says Mosleh. “With constant erosion of the average selling price (ASP) driven by consumers and the competitive nature of the handset and carrier markets, it has become more and more difficult for companies to be profitable.”

Component companies that supply, for example, sensors and camera modules, such as Aptina, VistaPoint Technologies, and Omnivision, must be very focused on the end cost of their component to remain profitable in the face of this ASP erosion. Wafer-level modules—the camera industry’s answer to cutting off the ASP erosion—now on the horizon are yet another discontinuity that will cause players at various levels of the ecosystem to shift and change, affecting contract manufacturers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and component providers alike. Instead of combining separate lenses and sensors into a device, wafer-level modules will fabricate the whole camera in layers of silicon that include the lens and sensor all in one layer.

To really perform in this challenging environment, companies must also focus on performance, which is more easily optimized by an independent entity than by a department within a larger contract manufacturer or equipment manufacturing service (EMS) provider. This enables transparent tracking of finances within each company, making subsequent acquisitions easier and increasing value to investors.

“We’re all trying to raise the bar and create a camera experience in the phone that is closer to a digital-still camera,” says Mosleh. “Cell phones have become these super-multi-purpose devices that typically don’t offer the high-performance of stand-alone MP3 players or digital-still cameras, because the devices in cell phones must consume less power and remain simple to use and smaller.” This imposes restrictions on the type of lens and sensor used. “Our mobile camera system is the size of a little sugar cube—it’s the epitome of manufacturing, optics, and electronics combined.”

To improve low-light camera performance and video performance in cell phones, Kodak recently introduced new color-filter pattern and pMOS hole-detector sensor technologies. The new cameras are now on the market, used as back-up cameras in luxury cars and in some digital cameras.—Valerie C. Coffey

More in Home