SAN MATEO, Calif. The digital camera market has a new chip vendor with a very old pedigree. Eastman Kodak Co., long a provider of high-end image sensors for its own systems, including charge-coupled devices (CCDs) for Kodak digital cameras, will begin selling the chips on the open merchant market. The move should be welcomed by camera makers faced with a short supply of CCD chips.
"We've been making image sensors for about 30 years, but we've never tried to make a merchant chip business out of this before," said Chris McNiffe, vice president of marketing and sales for Kodak's image sensor solutions unit (Rochester, N.Y.). More than half of the products the unit produces end up in Kodak cameras and are sold internally at cost.
"We want to change this operation from a cost center to a profitable business," McNiffe said.
Kodak has its own fab, which produces CCDs at its Rochester site, and in 1999 the fab generated some $40 million in sales revenue. While half of that came from internal sales, the remainder was generated from small-volume sales into industrial machine-vision products and medical imaging systems. The unit's credo not to sell to direct Kodak competitors kept the company from shipping its CCDs into digital cameras, which constitute one of the hottest electronics segments.
"Our business model has changed," said McNiffe. "We have not previously pushed into the digital camera market, but now we are willing to sell to anybody. We will let the market define our focus." McNiffe has only been with the company since earlier this year and is part of a team brought in expressly to transform Kodak's CCD business.
Along with a shift in business strategy, Kodak has several new CCD products that will be announced this week. In keeping with a past focus on advanced CCDs for expensive, professional-class digital cameras, the high-end chips are aimed primarily at systems designed for the professional photographer and dedicated hobbyist. They include a family of CMOS image sensors produced in partnership with Motorola Inc., a pair of large-format CCD chips, and an integrated chip with both the CCD functions and most of the drivers and other components needed to design a digital camera motherboard.
McNiffe said that Kodak now ranks fourth in overall worldwide CCD sales but that it is the industry leader for high-performance CCD technology. The company has more than 15 years of experience in the field and a very strong patent portfolio.
CCDs function as the "film" in digital cameras. They feature unique packaging, with most of the surface of the chip visible through a clear window.
That surface is covered with pixels, and when the surface of a CCD is briefly exposed to light, it can sense the strength of the photons as they hit different pixels. It records that strength in numerous electrical charges, which are then off-loaded into a processing core that translates all of that charge information into a detailed picture, defining each pixel by both light intensity and color. In other words, it re-creates whatever light image was flashed across the surface a digital photo.
Not only does Kodak plan to expand its marketing presence into this sector and to reach out to customers that were previously ignored, but McNiffe said he has no interest in continuing to produce chips at cost. He hopes to increase prices and profit margins dramatically. "Our emphasis is to grow this business aggressively," he said. "We plan to reach $100 million in annual sales within three years."
Because CCD chips require their own special manufacturing process, Kodak has been collaborating with Motorola on a special breed of digital camera chips based on CMOS manufacturing technology. Kodak is launching three CMOS image sensor chips now, its first using the ImageMOS process jointly developed by the two companies. All are fabbed at Motorola.
The KAC-0310 and the KAC-1310 are less expensive than dedicated CCD products, which makes them appropriate for less expensive digital cameras. The KAC-0310 is available in volume today, while the KAC-1310 will be available by the end of the year. Pricing has not been released.
In contrast, Kodak is also rolling out two large-format CCD products aimed at the professional market, and destined to be used in systems costing several thousands of dollars. With the CCD representing the most expensive item on the bill of materials for a digital camera, McNiffe conceded that these parts are not cheap but noted that even in medium volumes they will provide a healthy revenue stream for the business unit. Exact pricing has not been released.
The KAF-5100CE features 5.1 million pixels, each measuring 6.8 microns on a side. Both pixel size and density are key in defining the quality of an image. The KAF-16801CE part has 16.6 million pixels upon its large surface, but each is a bit smaller than the pixels on its sister component. Both chips are sampling now.
Finally, Kodak has also created an integrated component, the KAI-1020, that incorporates the CCD as well as the clock driver, the shutter driver and the correlated double-sampling unit, all of which are necessary for a digital camera. "This is the first CCD on the planet that integrates all of these functions," said McNiffe. Samples are available now, starting at $400 in 5,000-unit shipments.
None of these chips is targeting high-volume consumer applications. Kodak is specifically avoiding that segment in order to capitalize on its past strength in the high end of the market. Most of its CCDs have large sensor surfaces, almost a full inch tall and nearly two inches long. Its large-format family features CCDs with almost 4 square inches of sensor surfaces. In contrast, the low-cost CCDs used in the high-volume consumer end of the digital camera market may use silicon with sensor surface a quarter-inch on a side.
"We won't have the cheapest parts out in the market," said McNiffe. "We're not targeting the Barbie-cam market, but we will have the best parts available."