The earthquakes that jolted Kyushu a year ago killed dozens, left tens of thousands homeless and were a reminder of how much the global supply chain for smartphones and digital cameras depends on Sony Corp.
The tremors knocked out production at plants that produce image sensors, the chips that convert light particles into bits and make digital pictures and videos possible. To lead its recovery, the company turned to 33-year veteran engineer Hiromi Suzuki, who crisscrossed the country to secure parts needed to get its Kumamoto factory back online.
A year on from the temblor and Sony is taking sensors into augmented reality, self-driving cars, factory robots and drones as more machines begin using the chips to see the world around them. With control of about half the market, and customers including Apple Inc., Google and Nikon Corp., it’s building on technology pioneered in the 1980s with the Handycam.
“Rather than creating something for humans to look at, image sensors will be used more by machines to take in information,” said Suzuki, 58, the holder of several patents on the technology. “Whether it is internet of things, cars or automation in factories, the ability to interpret images is going to be a crucial feature. This will drive growth.”
Suzuki’s team managed to get Kumamoto back up a month ahead of schedule, helping Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai shave $540 million from expected operating losses and, more importantly, allowing Sony to maintain its market share.
Macquarie Group Ltd. expects sensors to generate 17 percent of operating profit by 2019.
“The idea that all of us will be surrounded by image sensors and using them in novel and interesting ways is part of what Sony is trying to build toward,” said Damian Thong, a Macquarie analyst. “They handled the earthquake recovery well, even to the extent of sacrificing their own camera businesses to protect customers.”
The Kumamoto plant was hit by hundreds of quakes over three days starting on April 14 last year. The biggest was a magnitude-7.3 quake which damaged the factory’s core structure, ruining specialized equipment like diffusion furnaces and smashing thousands of wafers sitting in clean rooms.
Suzuki’s team managed to cut the recovery period from four months down to three, but he’s confident it can be shortened to less than two for quakes of similar magnitude. That’s a critical improvement in a country that sits on the densest seismic network in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
After restoring Kumamoto, Sony is positioning the business to capture even more than the 49 percent market share it is estimated to hold by Techno Systems Research. Dual cameras, already used in the iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei P9, are becoming a key feature for mobile devices and use multiple sensors to simulate the bokeh effect which blurs the background to give pictures a glossy, professional look.
“As dual cameras increase, so will demand for more image sensors,” said Tetsuo Omori, an analyst at Techno Systems, which expects the market to grow by a third to $12.7 billion by 2020. “The question is how Sony handles capital investment. The plants are already running at full capacity. Building a new one is probably out of the question, so what’s the plan to squeeze more out of the existing ones.”
Beyond just increasing the number of cameras per phone, Sony’s new innovation is embedding memory inside image sensors, a design it unveiled in February. That captures more light, which reduces motion blur and allows for ultraslow motion videos that capture up to 1,000 frames per second.
“We’ve barely scraped what you can do with cameras in your phone,” said Thong. He says the recently-unveiled chips will make it possible to take hundreds of shots, then automatically feed them through software that churns out the single best photo possible. “This capability is going to be invisible to you, but the idea is that you’ll never have a shot that’s wasted. I think you’ll see that people will be willing to pay for that.”
Sony’s technology is already used in high-end car dashboards, where sensors track hand gestures to control music or GPS navigation.
Thong also expects image sensors to play a key role in augmented reality, which Apple is said to be considering as a central feature for this year’s iPhone 8, Bloomberg reported last month. In 2015, Sony bought a Belgian startup that creates 3-D models by using light to measure distances. In smartphones, Lenovo Group Ltd.’s Phab 2 Pro uses similar technology to map a room in 3-D and let virtual pets walk around it, or let interior designers plan room layouts with virtual furniture.
Suzuki is equally excited about the role image sensors could play in self-driving cars, where Sony has partnered with Denso Corp., the largest supplier to Toyota Motor Corp. Capturing images even at night while moving at high speed relies on technology rooted in Suzuki’s work from the 1980s.
“We have a 40-year history in building this technology up, bit by bit,” said Suzuki. “That’s what keeps us ahead of everyone else.”
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