The image sensor is the heart of a digital camera. It is one of the most important piece of hardware that determines image quality, product features, and performance. Unlike Canon, who is capable of designing and manufacturing images sensor on its own, Nikon was not known to have this capability. Many of the sensors were rumored to be manufactured by Sony even though no official confirmation from Nikon seemed to exist.
Lately, Nikon has been quietly stressing “Nikon developed” image sensors in their marketing materials. One such example is in the product brochure of the recently announced D3100.
Another more directly worded confirmation is found in the official Nikon press article about D3100 (highlighted in green below).
Thom Hogan commented on his website on August 20 that some sources close to Nikon Japan had confirmed such assertion that Nikon has started to produce their own image sensors for DSLRs. What does this really mean? NikonRumors also tried to piece together all the information.
Well, I doubt that Nikon has built a manufacturing facility that produces the image sensors. It won’t be very cost effective. In the world of semiconductor businesses, it is not uncommon to see many fab-less or fab-light technology companies that only develop a technology but outsource (most of) the actual manufacturing to specialized wafer foundries, whose entire business is to manufacturing chips for other companies on contract basis. For example, OmniVision, one of the largest image sensor providers in the world, designs, develops, and markets its image sensors but outsources its chip fabrication to TSMC.
It is understandable that Nikon now has built its own image sensor design team that designs the image sensor based on given performance matrix and feature needs then has the actual chip manufactured by a third party. Due to its relatively weak intellectual property (IP) portfolio in CMOS image sensors, Nikon may have to license technologies from other companies, but Nikon should now be able to control the product specifications and availability of the sensors instead of letting competitor such as Sony control its fate.
Because of their long relationship with Sony, it may be possible that Nikon has outsourced its sensor manufacturing to Sony’s fab. That’s probably the source of the persistent belief that Sony made the sensors in Nikon DSLR cameras. Sony may be willing to do so just to run its chip factory at its designed full capacity and earn some extra income. Because Sony ultimately owns the process technology in their fabrication facility, there are likely similarities in sensors used in Sony and Nikon cameras because both companies need to following the same set of design rules. If that’s indeed the case, it will be very understandable that “Nikon develops its own image sensors” and “Sony makes the Nikon sensors” are not at all contradictory.