Saved by Sensors, Sony Aims to Expand Their Use in Robotics, Self-Driving Cars


Sony Corp is poised to report its optimum-ever earnings this year on sturdy product sales of graphic sensors immediately after a long time of getting rid of floor in consumer electronics and hopes to produce the technologies for use in robotics and self-driving cars and trucks as opposition heats up.

The effects will mark a sizeable turnaround for the conglomerate, when famed for major the earth in buyer devices these types of as its Walkman music player, but now finding a new aim on impression sensors and gaming.

Sony forecasts that functioning gain in the yr as a result of March will additional than double to JPY 630 billion ($5.6 billion) compared with the 12 months earlier and expects the chips division, most of which is manufactured up of the impression sensors business enterprise, to be the conglomerate’s most important growth driver.

Executives say a technological breakthrough in image sensors and seachange in the firm’s thinking are powering the achievement. The breakthrough, generating a sensor that captures far more gentle to make sharper images, coincided with soaring buyer demand for far better smartphone cameras for sharing pics on social media.

The breakthrough, which involved reconfiguring the sensor structure and acknowledged as backside illumination, authorized Sony to get practically 50 percent of the marketplace for graphic sensors.

“We realized we wouldn’t be capable to acquire if we did what our rivals were being carrying out,” explained Teruo Hirayama, know-how chief of Sony’s chip organization, recalling first scepticism all around the technological know-how that is now made use of extensively.

Japanese names this kind of as Hitachi Ltd, NEC Corp and Fujitsu Ltd, which dominated mainstream chips by the late 1980s, have missing business to Asian rivals this kind of as Samsung Electronics.

Sony’s success “is truly a operate of possessing made the decision a very long time ago to emphasis on that niche within semiconductors,” states Andrew Daniels, a Tokyo-centered controlling director at Indus Capital, an expenditure administration organization. He declined to say no matter whether his fund owns Sony shares.

“The system technology is extremely substantially that form of ‘takumi-no-waza’,” he stated, making use of a Japanese phrase for the pursuit of production perfection.

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The sensor business enterprise was also helped by being an “outsider” inside the corporation. By providing to providers outside Sony, it was insulated from declining gross sales of the firm’s have smartphones and other customer electronics.

The sensors, for case in point, have been to start with marketed to All Nippon Airways, which made use of them to broadcast views from the cockpit to passengers.

“Sony utilized to be obsessed with the plan that its technologies ought to be saved within just the team for use only in its possess products and solutions,” reported Atsushi Osanai, professor at Waseda University’s business college. “Offering parts exterior the business was out of line with Sony’s conventional small business design.”

The sensor organization also received a increase from a shake-up initiated by Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai, who referred to as for every single division to be more independent and rewarding on its have.

“It was a terrific help for us to be informed that we should function independently,” Terushi Shimizu, the main of Sony’s chip division, stated, “relatively than just belong to Sony.”

But the company is now bracing for intensifying opposition in sensors as rivals, this sort of as Samsung and OmniVision Technologies, phase up their recreation, and is creating new sensor systems for use in robotics and self-driving autos.

Investors say Sony nonetheless has a technological benefit that will choose time for many others to replicate.

“Sony has been hoping to be in advance, but could deal with a turning level in a year or two,” mentioned Kun Soo Lee, senior principal analyst with IHS Markit in Tokyo.

It is producing sensor systems that can promptly measure distances or detect invisible gentle that are envisioned to be made use of in autonomous driving, manufacturing facility automation and robotics, they claimed.

“Time-of-flight” sensors, for instance, compute distances by measuring the time it normally takes for mild to mirror from an item and could be utilized in drones or robotics for gesture and object recognition.

“It truly is crystal clear that we are at the moment dependent on the smartphone market place,” Shimizu, the chip enterprise chief reported. “The market’s shift to twin-lens cameras from solitary-lens is fantastic for us, but how very long is this likely to very last as the marketplace is only escalating 1 or 2 per cent?”

© Thomson Reuters 2017

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