Sony's image sensors are pictured at the company's headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, November 27, 2017. Picture taken November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Sony Corp is poised to report its highest-ever profit this year on strong sales of image sensors after years of losing ground in consumer electronics and hopes to develop the technology for use in robotics and self-driving cars as competition heats up.
The results will mark a significant turnaround for the conglomerate, once famed for leading the world in consumer gadgets such as its Walkman music player, but now finding a new focus on image sensors and gaming.
Sony forecasts that operating profit in the year through March will more than double to 630 billion yen ($5.6 billion) compared with the year earlier and expects the chips division, most of which is made up of the image sensors business, to be the conglomerate's biggest growth driver.
Executives say a technological breakthrough in image sensors and seachange in the company's thinking are behind the success. The breakthrough, creating a sensor that captures more light to produce sharper images, coincided with soaring consumer demand for better smartphone cameras for sharing photos on social media.
The breakthrough, which involved reconfiguring the sensor layout and known as backside illumination, allowed Sony to grab nearly half of the market for image sensors.
"We knew we wouldn't be able to win if we did what our rivals were doing," said Teruo Hirayama, technology chief of Sony's chip business, recalling initial scepticism around the technology that is now used widely. Japanese names such as Hitachi Ltd, NEC Corp and Fujitsu Ltd, which dominated mainstream chips through the late 1980s, have lost business to Asian rivals such as Samsung Electronics.
Sony's success "is really a function of having decided a long time ago to focus on that niche within semiconductors," says Andrew Daniels, a Tokyo-based managing director at Indus Capital, an investment management firm. He declined to say whether his fund owns Sony shares.
"The process technology is very much that kind of 'takumi-no-waza'," he said, using a Japanese phrase for the pursuit of manufacturing perfection. The sensor business was also helped by being an "outsider" within the company. By selling to companies outside Sony, it was insulated from declining sales of the company's own smartphones and other consumer electronics.