New use cases and applications are transforming the CMOS Image Sensor landscape
NEW APPLICATIONS ARE TRANSFORMING THE MARKET AND TECHNOLOGY PLAYING FIELD FOR CMOS IMAGE SENSORS
It’s ten years down the line from the initial Apple iPhone that started the smartphone era. Since then, CMOS imaging has benefited from huge market demand and a technology-driven environment, resulting in an $11.6B industry in 2016. Photography and video is the main application, which is totally transformed by new use cases, new devices and new technologies.
The mobile market is key for the CMOS image sensor (CIS) industry. Despite saturation in the number of handsets, the CIS market has been able to maintain a 10.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the 2016-2022 period due to the introduction of dual and 3D cameras. These additional cameras are changing the industry’s drivers from form factor and image quality to interactivity.
Penetration into higher added value markets such as automotive, security and medical shows that CIS products are transforming use cases across the board. CIS technology adoption allows greater automation levels at low cost, while using newly available computing architectures such as deep learning. The CMOS image sensor industry is currently in a virtuous circle where a new technology is providing true customer value.
Besides the transformation of current applications, new applications such as drone photography, biometric identification, and augmented reality are relying on CIS innovation. All these new applications are part of the story told in the ‘2017 Status of the CIS Industry’ report.
BEYOND THE $10B LANDMARK, THE CIS ECOSYSTEM HAS NOT BECOME THE OLIGOPOLY WE WOULD HAVE EXPECTED
Sony has established itself as industry leader, market and technology wise. However, the 2016 earthquake in Japan slowed down its operation and helped maintain the growth of its close competitors. Indeed, despite Toshiba’s exit from the market, two thirds of players have seen growth in the last year. Samsung, Omnivision and Panasonic have delivered 15% year-on-year growth. Those large players are increasing the weight Asia carries in the CIS industry.
In the US, On Semi has suffered from the public relations mess that followed a fatal crash involving Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system, which included a Mobileye sensor. Automotive cameras are safety-critical and therefore the reaction is strong if performance does not match expectations. Tesla being cleared by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Intel’s $15B purchase of Mobileye should quickly put this application and affiliated players back on the growth track. Moving along the technology ladder proved to be difficult for SK Hynix, which was not able to switch quickly enough toward >8MP image sensors requiring 300mm wafer diameter operations.
Another noticeable activity has been STMicroelectronics’ revival of its CIS business through the development of 3D ‘Time of Flight’ (ToF) devices. These devices have had the ability to move from proximity to distance rangers and then fully fledged 3D cameras. They will probably be the biggest event of the end of 2017, if they materialize in the Apple iPhone 8 as is rumored.
SPEED OF TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION MIRRORS THE APPLICATION DEVELOPMENT FRENZY
A CMOS image sensor is an analog device using a digital process. Therefore, the industry has been following a key principle of “one application, one pixel, one process”. This probably explains the dynamism of the ecosystem and the ability of different players to coexist in different markets. On Semi, Teledyne, ams and STMicroelectronics all provide perfect examples of successful differentiating strategies.
The impact of 3D semiconductors is currently a key element of the competition. Samsung has finally joined Sony as a provider of stacked back-side illuminated (BSI) sensors. Omnivision and SK Hynix will also soon launch this technology. Meanwhile, SMIC and STMicroelectronics will probably be the next players to unveil their versions of stacked technology.
Increases in CIS production capacity have momentarily stopped due to this stacked trend. This is currently mainly due to Sony, which can source its logic wafers from TSMC. In coming years Sony, Samsung, STMicroelectronics, HLMC and SK Hynix will all announce extra CIS capacity in order to meet market demand, despite stacked BSI adoption.
Image sensors have become a significant semiconductor segment alongside processors and memories. They still provide a technology-driven environment that is profit-friendly despite fierce competition. The outcome of the competition depends on a combination of application pull and technology fit. To help judge that, this report is aimed at giving the best possible snapshot of the current status of the CIS industry. Purchasers can therefore use it in order to proactively benefit from the next wave of innovations.