Sony Can’t Make iPhone Camera Sensors Fast Enough to Keep Up With iPhone Demand

iPhone 11 Pro Camera Credit: Hadrian / Shutterstock
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With Apple’s iPhone line-up now sporting at least two, if not three sensors for each model — and other smartphone makers following suit — it seems that Apple’s main supplier of sensors for its iPhone 11 cameras is struggling like crazy to keep up with the demand.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Sony has had to run its manufacturing plants 24/7 over the holidays just to begin to meet the demand for more cameras on the iPhone and other modern smartphones. This isn’t the first year Sony has found itself in this position — it also had to keep its factories running through the holidays last Christmas — but it seems to be struggling to keep up even more this year.

Terushi Shimizu, who heads up Sony’s semiconductor unit, the arm of the company responsible for manufacturing camera sensors, said that the company has already made a 280 billion yen ($2.6 billion) investment to expand its capacity this year, but despite this it’s still struggling.

We are having to apologize to customers because we just can’t make enough.

Terushi Shimizu, Executive Vice President, Sony

Sony is building a new plant in Nagasaki to help it keep up with the demand for more and more smartphone camera sensors, but that’s not currently expected to open until April 2021.

Ironically, this increased demand for camera sensors comes at a time when overall smartphone demand has reached a plateau. The issue is not that there are too many iPhones and other smartphones being sold, but rather that each modern smartphone now sports two, three, or even four camera sensors. Sony is riding the wave of this new demand very well, says Masahiro Wakasugi, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, but it’s going to have to keep on plowing money back into its semiconductor division — and fast — if it’s going to keep up with the demand for more and better camera sensors.

The Weakest Link

Sony’s struggles highlight a key problem that Apple faces when it comes to producing the iPhone, and that’s the fact that it can only manufacture new iPhones as fast as its slowest component supplier can keep up, and if suppliers are struggling, it’s going to put a chokehold on Apple’s ability to sell iPhones as well.

That said, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is legendary for his ability to manage logistics and the supply chain, and in fact it was his skills in this area that distinguished him, vaulting him into the position of Chief Operating Officer under former CEO Steve Jobs. There have rarely been any situations — at least none that have come to public knowledge — of Apple’s manufacturing process for a current product being significantly hampered by other parts of the supply chain. Generally, by the time Apple announces something, it knows that it has all of the pieces in place to manufacture it at scale.

It’s much more common for Apple to pull a feature out of a product if it suspects that it may have supply chain problems, rather than risk running into manufacturing delays later on. For example, it was widely believed that the third-generation iPod touch would include a camera, and although it shipped without one, a teardown quickly revealed that it had been designed to accommodate a camera, leaving many to assume that Apple pulled the feature at the last minute due to problems locking in a supply of sufficient camera modules.

So while Sony’s struggle to keep up likely won’t have any impact on iPhone 11 sales, it could throw a wrinkle into Apple’s plans for its 2020 iPhone. Multiple reports have suggested that the “iPhone 12” will include a Time of Flight (TOF) camera sensor, which would also be supplied by Sony.

The TOF sensor technology is leading edge, and Shimzu considers this year to be “the year zero for time of flight,” but he says that the company is ready to meet the expected “significant increase in demand” next year for the new technology.

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