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Micron bets big on CMOS image sensor market

Posted: 17 Jan 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cmos? image sensor? camera phone? cellphone? pixel?

Though a latecomer to the CMOS image sensor market, Micron Technology Inc. expects to become the second largest supplier of sensors for the camera phone market in its current fiscal year, which started in September of last year.

Micron has added two 1/6-inch vga sensors and a 1/3-inch, 2Mpixel sensor for camera phone applications to its product portfolio. Based on Micron's proprietary DigitalClarity imaging technology, these devices can capture images with a luminance under 1lux, the company said.

Micron diversified into the image sensor business in 2003 with a simple strategy: Utilize depreciated dram production lines to make competitive CMOS sensors.

"The production process for the sensors resembles the DRAM process," said Hisayuki Suzuki, senior director of marketing in Micron's imaging group. At present, Micron is shifting DRAM fabrication to a 90nm process. CMOS sensors, meanwhile, are fabricated on a 150nm process and will soon be shifted to 130nm. "We can fabricate CMOS sensors on the lines that were depreciated," Suzuki said. "So Micron has an advantage in cost competitiveness. No Japanese company can play against us in cost."

The company became one of the top five suppliers of CMOS sensors for mobile phones last year, and rapid sales growth will push it up to second place this year, Suzuki said.

Initially focused on mainland and Taiwan handset makers as customers, Micron says it is now negotiating with the world's top handset makers. Dataquest Inc. ranks Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Siemens, Sony-Ericsson and LG in that category as of the Q2 2004. While Micron is directly negotiating with these suppliers, a deal with one of the majors would actually involve shipment of the image sensors to manufacturers of camera modules. "Some of the VGA module production is shifting to Korea, but Japanese camera module makers are still dominating in the Mpixel camera module area," Suzuki said.

Micron purchased Photobit Corp., a developer of CMOS imaging chips for professional cameras, in 2002, and has combined Photobit's imaging design technology with its own DRAM process.

"Micron's image-processing technology grew out of Photobit's advanced technology. Within a year, Micron will surely emerge into the ranks of companies with a market share," said Yoshihisa Toyosaki, president of iSuppli Japan KK.

CMOS image sensors are a solid-state alternative to ccd image sensors, which are supplied today primarily by Japanese manufacturers, some of which also make CMOS imagers. "Micron has introduced a 2Mpixel imager. It is capable of cornering the Japanese market in terms of volume and image quality," said Toyosaki of iSuppli.

Each pixel on Micron's 2Mpixel CMOS sensor measures 2.8-by-2.8?m. Next year, Micron plans to introduce 3Mpixel and 5Mpixel sensors with individual pixels measuring 2.2 x 2.2?m, the same as in CCDs, the company said.

Demand for such high-resolution image sensors is growing but is still way off, Suzuki said. VGA-quality sensors were mainstream image sensors last year, he said, while 1.3Mpixel imagers are just now entering the market and will become mainstream in 2006 in most of the world. Meanwhile, said Suzuki, VGA-quality sensors will remain mainstream in markets like China into 2006.

- Yoshiko Hara

EE Times

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