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[Thought Leadership] Innovating for the CIS Surge: Chang-rock Song, Head of CIS Business

By October 19, 2021 No Comments

Confidence is crucial when facing the uncertainties of the future. Those who continuously perform well have their confidence spurred by both big and small personal accomplishments. An individual’s confidence can grow and become a good influence on peers, leading to even more success.

Chang-rock Song, Head of CIS Business, has been with SK hynix for more than 20 years and seems to have a firm grasp on confidence. Although he has the difficult task of improving the foundations of SK hynix’s CIS business, he truly believes that the team’s current efforts will lead to future success.

Making Waves in the CIS Market: The Future Bread and Butter of the Semiconductor Industry

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A CMOS Image Sensor, or Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor Image Sensor—commonly referred to as CIS—is a semiconductor that converts the color and brightness of light received through a lens into electrical signals, which are then transmitted to processing devices. Acting as the increasingly important “eyes” in IT devices, such as smartphones, means CIS-related markets are experiencing rapid growth. According to a June 2021 Gartner report, the CIS market is expected to grow from USD 19.9 billion to USD 26.3 billion before 2026, or roughly 7.3% annually.
Comparatively, the overall semiconductor and semiconductor memory markets are expected to achieve 4.0% and 4.1% annual growth respectively.

“CIS is not a replacement for the human eye, but an improvement as far as its ability to expand upon its features. In the future, CIS will be utilized beyond mobile technology in security, robotics, automotive, and AR/VR industries. I’m confident that the CIS business will be a pillar of SK hynix’s growth along with DRAM and NAND flash,” Song said.

He went on to describe why CIS fits nicely within SK hynix’s product portfolio.

“As the semiconductor memory market grows and new technologies are developed, new fabs are built and the adoption of new processes and equipment follows suit. Unused assets and retired technologies generated as a product of this growth can be repurposed for CIS production. This is because there is a lower level of scaling required for CIS compared to memory but the manufacturing process and equipment are similar. Additionally, CIS business plays an important role as a foothold for SK hynix to expand deeper into the non-memory market.”

Currently, Sony and Samsung Electronics lead the CIS market with about 80% market share based on sales, while SK hynix, OmniVision, and GalaxyCore compete over the remaining 20%.

SK hynix has faced some challenges expanding its market share, due to its late entry into the high-end CIS market.

“At first, customers doubted if SK hynix could run a CIS business, but now we are recognized as a major supplier of low-pixel areas below 13MP (megapixel). To expand into the high-pixel market of 32MP or higher, we are strengthening our R&D capabilities and are striving to achieve increased productivity. In addition, SK hynix has secured Pixel Shrink technology which determines CIS reliability and provides us with a great advantage. We have accumulated know-how regarding cell scaling from our work in the DRAM field and possess proven equipment already in use on the production line. By comparison, our competitors must go through several additional steps, delaying their advancement while we optimize unique time-saving methods.”

SK hynix secured a meaningful global market share in CIS and has now set the goal of joining the list of industry leaders.

To achieve such a goal, Song pointed out that defining product portfolios and achieving competitiveness in regard to development are prerequisites. He emphasized that “we need to release our product line-up at the same time as our competitors with the same level of quality.”

Song believes that the market will dramatically change in the near future and is putting significant effort into preparing for it.

“Pixel size in analog CIS cannot be continuously reduced in the same way as DRAM. When the limit is reached, new innovations are needed in peripheral technologies, as opposed to process technologies. In the future, CIS will not just be a visual sensor but will evolve into an information sensor and intelligence sensor. As a result, the competitive paradigm will also change. Meanwhile, the existing technology gap will become meaningless and market share will be reorganized. Our top priority is to be a leader in this upcoming match.”

A Hero of Innovation: Writing Another Success Story for SK hynix

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Song joined the memory lab at SK hynix (previously Hyundai Electronics) in 1999 after getting his Doctorate in Materials Science and Engineering. He contributed to increasing yield rates by spearheading process innovation for DRAM production and leading R&D. From 2017 to 2020, he guided company-wide efforts towards processes and system innovation as a CIO (Chief Information Officer) and ushered in DX (Digital Transformation). Currently, Song is responsible for SK hynix’s CIS business and strives to improve its foundations ahead of future opportunities.

How was it possible to create continued success in such an arduous industry? Song cited SK hynix’s special “DNA” as the means to overcoming challenges.

“It is in the ‘DNA’ of SK hynix team members to be passionate and overcome difficulties together as well as being innovative and reasonable. We learned a lot from our seniors who strived to rebuild the company following the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s and the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. So, we always keep in mind that we need to leave a better system and a strong heritage behind for the younger generation.”

As SK hynix’s CIS business is still relatively new, Song is designing fresh ways to awaken the passion in his team members’ “DNA” and understands that the business still needs to be supplemented in terms of overall systems and work processes.

First, he restructured the CIS team and changed the way individuals work together. After uncovering inefficient work processes, Song aimed to improve productivity and minimize the burden of unnecessary communications. He also increased the adoption of business automation and intelligence by promoting DX.

“To efficiently increase the amount of work one person can handle, simple repetitive tasks and paperwork should be completed by digital systems. To implement such processes, protocols should be in place from the time of product development through to mass production. Therefore, we actively introduced IT systems such as an internal messenger and an internal blog as well as a project management system. By utilizing these systems, we are setting strong operation standards for our CIS team members.

Once the promised protocol is mounted on the system, the work is automatically delivered to the next person without any meeting or reporting procedure. When one phase is over, teams can move immediately to the next. Team members can focus on finding their own ways to efficiently perform using VWBE (Voluntarily, Willingly Brain Engagement) rather than preparing for meetings or finalizing reports. As a result, the competitiveness of our CIS business can be continually enhanced as productivity per person improves.”

A ‘Warmhearted Leader’ Helping Team Members Find Happiness by Innovating the Way They Work

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Song’s concept of “innovating the way you work” is closely related to team members’ happiness. He understands that team members feel happiest when “there aren’t any troubles at work, and everything is going smoothly.” To make this possible, he points out that thorough proactive management is necessary.

“When work proceeds smoothly, team members are much happier. Thanks to confirmed protocols and simple communication between coworkers, team members are likely to spread their happiness around—sometimes even to their family if they feel inspired at work. Employees should be able to earn happiness at work, not just money.

To make businesses run smoothly, corporate pre-management, or “continuous care for team members”, is needed. The opposite of happiness is indifference, not sadness. Employee happiness increases when organizations show they care. It is important employers make changes that lead to a more positive working environment that inspires their teams.”

When asked what kind of leader he is, Song said he strives to be a “leader who feels confident in delegating.”

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“I try to delegate more duties to the team members. Otherwise, junior team members cannot grow as their work becomes limited to including only the things that they are deemed good at. That being said, senior team members like myself still need to take responsibility for the result even though our juniors will be accountable. In taking this approach, each team member can perform self-leadership, meaning that they can make decisions on behalf of the team.“

Finally, he shared the following important keywords as key takeaways for his team (listed in priority): safety, ethics, security, quality, yield rate, and productivity.