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Annual Report 2011


Compared with conventional front-illuminated complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor architecture, the "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor achieves approximately twice the sensitivity and features low noise*1. After its successful development in 2008, the "Exmor R" was first deployed by Sony in 2009 in the Handycam® and has since been used in such products as compact digital cameras and mobile phones. The "Exmor R" has won high praise from users for realizing high performance in very low-light scenarios.
For example, without using a flash, cameras equipped with the "Exmor R" can capture clear, vibrant photos even when the only light available is candlelight. In recognition of its role in enhancing the performance of compact digital cameras and opening up a new realm of possibilities, the "Exmor R" received a rare honor for an image sensor -- the Editors Award at the Camera Grand Prix 2010 -- in Japan. The development and mass production of the "Exmor R" gained further recognition when Sony Corporation and Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation received the 57th Okochi Memorial Production Prize from the Okochi Memorial Foundation.

The "Exmor R" has also garnered acclaim from a diverse array of manufacturers and is being considered for deployment in a large number of products. Consequently, Sony is aggressively working to expand its overall CMOS image sensor business, including the "Exmor R," and has announced a 140 billion yen capital investment program for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to meet market demand for its image sensor products*2.

*1
Comparison between Sony's conventional (front-illuminated) CMOS image sensor and the new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor with the same pixel size (1.75㎛).
*2
On September 1,2010, Sony announced an investment of 40 billion yen in Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Kumamoto Technology Center, and on December 27, 2010, Sony announced an investment of 100 billion yen in the Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Nagasaki Technology Center.


HDRXR520V and the HDR-XR500V,


In February 2009, Sony introduced the HDRXR520V and the HDR-XR500V, the first HD video cameras in the world equipped with a back-illuminated CMOS image sensor


Cyber-shot™ DSC-TX1


In September 2009, Sony launched sales of the Cyber-shot™ DSC-TX1, the first compact digital camera equipped with a back-illuminated CMOS image sensor. The Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 subsequently won a Gold Award at the 2010 iF product design awards in Germany.


Cyber-shot™ phone S006 is


The Cyber-shot™ phone S006 is equipped with an "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor. The world's first mobile phone with a 16.20-effective megapixel camera*, the Cyber-shot™ S006 is capable of shooting high-quality still images even in low-light settings


*
Sony Ericsson data (October 2010).


By directing light onto the silicon substrate from behind, the increased efficiency in light use makes high-quality images possible even in low-light settings

With the "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor, light is directed onto the silicon substrate from behind, allowing light to be used with a level of efficiency not possible with conventional front-illuminated pixel structures. Photographers can now create smooth, high-quality images in low-light settings. For example, the Cyber-shot digital cameras incorporating the "Exmor R" also utilize Sony's BIONZ image processing engine. By combining these two technologies, the camera fully comes into its own in such low-light scenarios as night panoramas and indoor shots -- which were previously difficult to shoot well on a compact digital camera.
This architecture means photographers need not use a flash but can still achieve low noise, vibrant, clear images. By deploying the "Exmor R," it is possible to use multiple metal wiring layers and arrange the transistors with greater freedom. These advantages are expected to result in a variety of advances, including further improvements in speed and dynamic range.
  • 16.38 effective megapixels back-illuminated CMOS image sensor for compact digital cameras
    16.38 effective megapixels back-illuminated CMOS image sensor for compact digital cameras


16.41 effective megapixels back-illuminated CMOS image sensor for mobile phones
16.41 effective megapixels back-illuminated
CMOS image sensor for mobile phones

16.41 effective megapixels lens module for mobile phones
16.41 effective megapixels lens module
for mobile phones

8.13 effective megapixels lens module for mobile phones
8.13 effective megapixels lens module for mobile phones


Sony aims to be the world's leading company in both CCD and CMOS image sensor technology

Image sensors are imaging elements that may be thought of as the "eyes" of digital video and digital cameras. In 1978, Sony announced that it had developed a 110,000-pixel charge-coupled
device (CCD) image sensors. Since then, Sony has continued to develop its own image sensor technology, and in recent years, in addition to the high-resolution pixel technology it has cultivated in the CCD field, Sony has pursued the development of high-resolution and high-speed CMOS image sensor technology. This has included the "Exmor," which utilizes proprietary on-chip column A/D conversion and dual noise reduction. Furthermore, by developing the back-illuminated CMOS image sensor -- an architecture long considered technically difficult to achieve -- Sony has realized further enhancements in sensitivity as well as noise reduction.

Sony has for many years maintained the leading market share for CCD image sensors. From fiscal year 2009 (the year ended March 31, 2010), Sony has also achieved the top market share for CMOS image sensors, based on sales value.* Sony intends to continue aggressively expanding its "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor business and thereby
contribute to the realization of further advances in resolution in consumer-use digital video cameras and digital still cameras.

*
TECHNO SYSTEM RESEARCH, November 2011.


  • Teruo Hirayama, Senior General Manager, Semiconductor Technology Development Division, Semiconductor
    Teruo Hirayama
    Senior General Manager, Semiconductor Technology Development Division, Semiconductor Business Group

Until quite recently, although CMOS image sensors enjoyed the advantage of comparatively low power consumption, their structural weak point was a high level of noise, making them unsuitable for use in high-quality digital cameras. For this reason they were almost solely used in such devices as mobile phones. Although we knew that it would be possible to increase image quality by utilizing a back-illuminated structure to capture light more efficiently, the stumbling block we faced was an increase in noise. Consequently, most image sensor specialists believed that it was almost impossible to develop an image sensor based on such a structure.

In 2002, when I transferred from my previous job developing MOS logic and was assigned to the project team for image sensor development -- an area outside my direct expertise -- this was still the prevailing view among image sensor design engineers. When we began the project to develop an "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor, there were fewer than 10 of us on the project team. While we believed that our success could usher in a major change in the world of imaging technology, we spent a considerable period struggling to overcome the noise issue.

However, through ongoing trial and error, we came up with an idea that we thought might be the solution. Straight away, we asked the opinion of a Sony Handycam® video camera developer, who was startled by the exquisite image quality we showed him. The high quality of the images we shot, even in dimly lit settings, was unprecedented at the time. We received a directive to rapidly commercialize the technology and, as soon as we overcame issues relating to mass production, succeeded in commercializing the world's first consumer-use products to incorporate "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor technology.

Even during the period in which we struggled to overcome technical difficulties, the "Sony Spirit" kept us determined not to give in but to rise to the challenge, in the end leading to the creation of new technology. Even now, Sony's "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensors have a clear competitive advantage. There is still ample room to improve the image quality and performance of image sensor technology, so we will not be resting on our laurels. We are committed to continuing our development efforts so that we can realize further advances in technology that will bring enjoyment and excitement to our customers.

The "Exmor" CMOS image sensor
-- linchpin of Sony's interchangeable lens digital cameras

  • Interchangeable lens digital camera "α55"
    Interchangeable lens digital camera "α55"

While the "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor, which realizes both high
sensitivity and miniaturization, is deployed in compact digital cameras and mobile phones, for interchangeable lens digital cameras a large-format image sensor (an APS-C-sized sensor or full-frame sensor) that provides high picture quality and advanced potential for creativity is absolutely essential. To meet such high demands, Sony developed the "Exmor "CMOS image sensor in-house, which realizes high-resolution images with fine detail and rich tonal gradation.

The "Exmor" utilizes on-chip column A/D conversion and dual noise reduction processing whereby noise reduction is applied both before and after analog / digital conversion. By eliminating noise at the initial stage of light capture and conversion to electrical signals, the "Exmor" realizes outstanding image quality and suppresses noise to the greatest extent possible, even in low-light situations. "Exmor"'s capabilities were first demonstrated when it was deployed in the α700, a mid-range interchangeable lens DSLR camera launched in 2007. A full-frame "Exmor" image sensor was subsequently used in the α900, released in 2008. In recent years, Sony has developed the "Exmor" APS HD CMOS image sensor, optimized for Full HD movies in response to increasing demand for Full HD video capabilities in single-lens digital cameras. The "Exmor" image sensor is also featured in the α55 and α33 -- which realize high-speed continuous shooting, thanks to Sony's groundbreaking Translucent Mirror Technology* -- and in the NEX-5 and NEX-3 compact interchangeable lens digital cameras, as well as in the NEXVG10, the world's first interchangeable lens HD video camera, launched in 2010, and remains at the cutting edge of image quality. Going forward, the "Exmor" CMOS image sensor will continue to play a key role in driving evolution in the growing interchangeable lens digital camera market.

*
Translucent Mirror Technology uses a translucent mirror to continuously direct light passing through the lens to both the CMOS image sensor and the phase detection AF sensor simultaneously. This enables continuous fast, high-precision phase-detection AF shooting and continuous focusing on the shooting target.


Investment in the image sensor business

  • Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Kumamoto Technology Center
    Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Kumamoto Technology Center
  • Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Nagasaki Technology Center
    Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Nagasaki Technology Center

On September 1, 2010, Sony announced that it planned to invest approximately 40 billion yen in Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Kumamoto Technology Center (Kumamoto TEC) to increase production capacity for "Exmor" and "Exmor R" CMOS image sensors. Execution of this additional investment would be spread between the second half of fiscal year 2010, ended March 31, 2011, and fiscal year 2011, ending March 31, 2012.

Furthermore, on December 27, 2010, Sony announced plans to invest approximately 100 billion yen in Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Nagasaki Technology Center (Nagasaki TEC) during fiscal year 2011, ending March 31, 2012, to increase the production capacity for CMOS image sensors. This investment plan includes (i) semiconductor fabrication equipment acquired on April 1, 2011, based on definitive agreements between Sony and Toshiba Corporation announced on February 28, 2011; (ii) refurbishment of a part of these semiconductor fabrication facilities into new wafer lines capable of manufacturing CMOS image sensors; and (iii) refurbishment of and equipment for part of the production facilities at Nagasaki TEC's Building 3 for wafer processing for the purpose of differentiating Sony's CMOS image sensors using proprietary technologies. Within this investment program, principally in relation to item (iii) above, Sony is utilizing subsidies provided under the Japanese Government's fiscal year 2010 "Project to promote plant construction in industries that create low-carbon-type employment" administered by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.*

*
Through Sony Semiconductor Kyushu's investments of approximately 40 billion yen in Kumamoto TEC and approximately 100 billion yen in Nagasaki TEC as outlined above, Sony plans to increase its total manufacturing capacity for CCD and CMOS image sensors from its current level of approximately 25,000 units per month to approximately 50,000 units per month (calculation for 300mm wafers, as of December 27, 2010) by the end of March 2012.


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