Madison, Wis. Eastman Kodak Co., whose analog film technology made it a household name in the last century and a threatened species in the current one, will take dramatic steps today to tie its future tightly to mainstream digital imaging.
The company will field its first CMOS image sensors for consumer digital still cameras and camera phones and will make the sensor intellectual property available for licensing.
The offerings reflect a shift in business and technology strategy to accommodate two realities: the consumer segment's assumption of the market driver's seat and the need to partner up to serve it. The new sensors build on Kodak's acquisition last year of National Semiconductor Corp.'s imaging unit. IBM is manufacturing them, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. has licensed the IP. Kodak is also partnering with Texas Instruments on a reference design based on Kodak's sensor and TI's Omap processor. And it has outsourced a number of support activities, such as test, once conducted in-house.
The imaging giant has had R&D operations in both CMOS and charge-coupled devices for decades, but until now those efforts have focused on high-performance applications, such as professional digital still cameras, machine vision and medical imaging. Kodak has had no image sensor presence in the consumer digital photography market; not even its own popular line of EasyShare consumer DSCs has used its sensors.
"We need to earn our way" into the mainstream market, acknowledged Michael DeLuca, marketing manger of the company's image sensors solutions group.
That may not be easy, since Micron Technology Inc., MagnaChip Semiconductor Ltd., Omnivision Technologies Inc., Samsung, Matsushita and Cypress Semiconductor Corp. are also racing to field megapixel CMOS image sensors for the mainstream market. Moreover, like every other CMOS sensor supplier, Kodak will have to fend off competition from CCD image sensors manufactured in Japan.
Thus Kodak which once insisted on full ownership of the process, from R&D to test has mended its maverick ways. Today the company will unveil sweeping partnership deals with Texas Instruments Inc. and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) to help its CMOS image sensors penetrate the camera phone market.
IBM is the foundry for Kodak's first homegrown, 3.1- and 5-megapixel CMOS image sensors. Kodak will also license its imaging IP for PIN photodiodes and four-transistor and shared-pixel architectures. Used together, the technologies are claimed to yield a lower-noise design and improve photosensitivity in low lighting.
Not the first time
This is not Kodak's first attempt to build a presence in consumer CMOS sensors. In 1997, when former Motorola chief George Fisher was Kodak's CEO, Kodak partnered with Motorola, but "the technology was not ready" and could not compete with CCDs on quality, DeLuca said.
Nonetheless, DeLuca said, the partnership taught Kodak indispensible lessons on what it takes to succeed in the CMOS image sensor market. The keys include amassing internal and external expertise to build a foundation for broad market acceptance, as well as "a stronger foundry focus."
Kodak last year chose IBM as a fab partner, and the companies have jointly developed process technologies for Kodak's CMOS sensors. IBM's 0.18-micron CMOS copper manufacturing process has proved key, DeLuca said, since "its thin copper can shrink the height of the sensor." IBM is manufacturing the 3.1 and 5-Mpixel sensors at its fab in Burlington, Vt.
Kodak has also licensed key CMOS manufacturing technologies to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. That arrangement could result in a delicate dance whereby Kodak competitors could contract with TSMC to build sensors based on core IP that the competitors license from Kodak.
Under the TI deal, meanwhile, the pair will develop a reference design incorporating Kodak's CMOS image sensors and TI's Omap, a popular processor platform in mobile phones and other handhelds. Similarly, Kodak is turning to a group of leading external service companies for wafer probe, test, IC and chip-scale packaging, and qualification procedures.
The question remains whether all of Kodak's efforts might prove too little, too late, given the CMOS image sensor market's recent spate of acquisitions. South Korea's MagnaChip acquired CMOS sensor developer IC Media Corp. earlier this year. Cypress Semiconductor, which last year acquired FillFactory NV, a Belgium-based leader in active-pixel CMOS sensor technology, has just announced its first 3-megapixel CMOS image sensor. Micron Technology took over Photobit Corp. in late 2001 and has since become a factor of some import in the market.
Kodak last year made an acquisition of its own, picking up National Semiconductor Corp.'s imaging business. While Kodak had its own R&D in CMOS sensors before the deal, the National group brought enhanced expertise in advanced mixed-signal circuit designs.
Tony Henning, managing editor of The Mobile Imaging Report at Future Image Inc., doesn't think the window of opportunity has shut. "At this point, it seems that for every acquisition, there is a new entry," said Henning. For example, "as we 'lose' National Semiconductor, we 'gain' Kodak. Consequently, the number of players is not reduced."
Because the camera phone market is still immature, "in my opinion, Kodak has not missed the boat" in CMOS sensors if it can make the case that its devices yield acceptable image quality, Henning said. Kodak "still has the No. 1 photography brand worldwide," he noted, and it can be expected to leverage its considerable imaging-IP portfolio to "help module/handset manufacturers and carriers drive consumer perception that mobile imaging is viable."
How the technology works
How might Kodak go about making the case that its 3-Mpixel sensors are better than others? Analysts said it's virtually impossible to do a head-to-head comparison, largely because the image sensor is just one determinant of picture quality in any camera system (Others include the lens and the image processor).
But Kodak will make a quality pitch nonetheless for its sensors. Its Pixelux technology introduces into the pixel circuit design a "transfer gate" (TG) that, when closed, electrically isolates the photodiode, providing "an opportunity to do true correlated double sampling," said DeLuca. The result is "low-noise design for improved image quality." Further, by deploying a "shared-pixel architecture," Kodak engineers freed up real estate for the photodiode, which otherwise would have been made smaller by the integration of the TG in the circuit design.
The shared-pixel architecture also allows a number of unique readout options, such as reading each pixel separately, two pixels at a time or four pixels at a time. Reading out multiple pixels simultaneously on the imaging array can increase sensitivity under low-light conditions, according to Kodak.
Unit shipments of image sensors used in digital still cameras and camera phones are rising industrywide, though shipments for CMOS sensors are growing at far higher rates than CCD shipments, said market research firm In-Stat Inc. (Scottsdale, Ariz.). Total revenues for CMOS image sensors in digital still cameras are on course to climb at double-digit rates between 2001 and 2008, whereas CCDs are seeing single-digit growth.
Revenues for CMOS sensors in digital cameras are seen increasing at double-digit rates over the same period, while CCDs are expected to decline during that span, according to In-Stat.