The camera was one of the biggest surprises at NAB this year -- a RAW shooting video camera for under $5,000 that used standard SSD drives for storage. The company planned on rolling them out by late July/early August, but one delay pushed that back until later in August, and another until September. A new camera model was even introduced with a Micro 4/3 mount. We were updated on the issues each time there was a serious delay, but now we're into November. It's been a frustrating few months for the team at Blackmagic, but the CEO, Grant Petty, has taken the time to give us a full and complete answer about the current status.
The major issue the team originally faced was explained back in September, and basically the glass covering bonded to the sensor was contaminated from packing materials. That company's testing software was not finding these issues and so the sensors were getting shipped to Blackmagic with the supplier thinking they were 100% free of defects, when in fact, the sensors were completely useless. Now it seems the issue was not resolved at that time, and is quite a bit more complicated than just an error in testing. Even after the supplier supposedly fixed the issue with their quality control, Blackmagic was still getting bad sensors, so they sent in their engineers to figure it out for themselves.
The full message from Grant Petty is available in the Blackmagic forum, but here is a slightly shorter version describing the current issue:
What we found when investigating their processes was quite surprising. Of course we had known the original problem with their quality control checks was their test software had not been modified for color sensors. In the past their sensors were used for scientific use and used in black and white. Also their glass was never used as other customers bonded the lens optics onto the sensor itself. In our case we use the sensor in a conventional way and the customers change lenses. We need the glass on the sensor like all other cameras do.
Also, they had never built a camera using the sensor they make for us. We are the only camera that’s used this sensor and glass combination. It's like designing and building cars but no one at the company has every driven one.
So it turns out their quality process is really only good at testing the semiconductor die. It's no good at testing the quality of the overall sensor product with the glass in front. This meant they could not even see the problems we were seeing, so that’s why we were getting bad parts. We sent them the information on how to build our test setup and yesterday they started testing using it. Now they are seeing the same quality problems we are seeing. This is good as it means we should not get any more bad sensors.
The problem left is that out of a test batch of 30 sensors, only 4 worked well enough so we can build cameras using them. This is bad. So while the good news is they can now see the same problems we see, the question is why is there still contamination on the glass.
The reason is the contaminated glass issue in many ways distracted them from the problems their manufacturer is having bonding the glass to the sensor itself. The sensor supplier now has two sources of glass, and both of them are showing the same problems. The parts without glass are ok, and the problems appear when the glass is bonded to the sensor. If the glass is clean then it's really the company bonding on the glass that are introducing contamination.
This is the current plan for fixing the issue and letting users know when they might be getting a camera:
The sensor supplier is getting some new sensors made at the original supplier, which we should get test data back on late this week. Once we see this we will know if the original supplier can make the parts without contamination and so we can start building cameras again. I don't know why they changed glass bonding companies.
So the current plan is to get some sensors from the original glass bonding company and based on their upgraded testing we should know more at the end of the week if we are going to get a good supply of sensors starting to ship using that new company.
I will let you all know later this week or early next when we get some of these sensors to build cameras with and will know if we can start production full speed again.
Lastly, please take it easy on our PR folks. They want more regular updates and it’s me personally that are stopping that, because I don't want to do fluff updates that don't say anything and I don't want to lie to people.
So the issue is complicated and more involved than it first seems, and just like any company building a camera for the first time (like RED), there are going to be serious issues with manufacturing. While that may not be comforting to people who pre-ordered a camera in April, there isn't much that can be done about the situation that the company isn't already working on. The advantage that a company like Sony or Canon has is that not only have they been doing this a long time, but they are deeply involved in the fabricating of the senors, so they can fix these problems relatively quickly. Since Blackmagic is buying these sensors, there wasn't a lot that they could do at the time when the original problems cropped up.
If you've pre-ordered a camera, the news is frustrating, and depending on the backorder number, it might be a while before you get a camera. Even though some users are getting cameras, it's because they are actually able to build a few that pass their quality control, but the vast majority of the sensors have been useless. I won't venture a guess about when you might be able to get a camera at the moment, but as Grant says, if the situation has been corrected, we should know relatively soon when these cameras can start shipping in volume.