The Grenoble connection

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Here’s a fact: As many as 10 Apple engineers have been working on imaging in Grenoble over the last few years, a place ST has long headquartered its image-sensor team.

« Previously: 3D-stacked BSI enables SPAD

Aside from the technology breakthrough ST’s team has (evidently) made, another telltale sign that connects ST and iPhone 8 was on display at ST’s conference call with financial analysts at the end of January.

While withholding customers’ names, ST discussed its plans to double capital spending for 2017, with investments to “support ST’s strategic focus areas and specific key new product ramps.”

Carlo Ferro, ST’s CFO, noted during the call, “The investments we are considering for 2017 are aligned to the substantial revenue opportunity we see this year, particularly in the second half and beyond and will result in a temporary increase in CapEx spending to $1 billion to $1.1 billion for 2017.”

During the call, Jean-Marc Chery, Chief Operating Officer, referring to ST’s $1 billion-plus CapEx, added, “Much of this will be in the first half of 2017, as we prepare for a major product ramp. We have already started some of this investment during 2016. Specifically, the company is investing in 12-inch front-end manufacturing and in back-end assembly and test to support new products. In particular we anticipate a newly won program to ramp with substantial revenue in the second half of 2017.”

Asked specifically about the capacity of the Crolles fab, CEO Carlo Bozotti, said that ST’s current equipment capacity is about 3,000 wafers per week, but with plans to expand to 5,000 wafers per week. Asked if that expansion will happen within 18 months, Bozotti responded, “Much quicker.”

Grenoble connection

Here’s a fact: As many as 10 Apple engineers have been working on imaging in Grenoble over the last few years. Their presence is open knowledge among locals, according to Cambou. The local newspaper reported last summer that Apple signed a lease with the city of Grenoble to open a research and development center there. The 800-square-meter facility will reportedly focus on imaging components and employ about thirty engineers.

Apple’s choice of Grenoble for its labs, where ST has long headquartered its image-sensor team, seems hardly coincidental.

Cambou suspects that ST could be using Silicon on insulator (SOI)-based wafers for the new SPAD 3D imagers. He said, “This is the way people have been doing BSI in the Grésivaudan valley (in Crolles…) for a long time.”

Yole’s Cambou is publishing a new report entitled “3D imaging & Sensing” in the next few weeks. Although the Apple-ST-3D sensor connection isn’t the main topic, it is mentioned “in a fraction of the report,” he said.

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