HIRATSUKA, Japan – Japan’s electronics industry is floundering. For examples, look no further than Toshiba’s never-ending drama over sales of its NAND flash business, and Foxconn’s takeover last year of LCD giant Sharp.
Time to write off Japan? Perhaps, but first a number of undervalued gems buried beneath the surface of Japanese big business.
Any hunt today for a hot electronics business or promising electronics technologies in Japan has to round up more than the usual suspects, like Toshiba, Sony or NEC. Many of the old-guard electronics companies, as a matter of survival, have sold off or folded their sprawling R&D projects or budding business units.
The first step in finding Japan’s diamonds in the rough is to seek out corporations whose main business is not in electronics.
Toray Industries Inc., for instance, is primarily known for textiles. In recent years, however, Toray has diversified into electronic circuit- and semiconductor-related materials and optical filters for flat panel displays. It has made itself into something of a powerhouse in nanofibers, carbon fiber component materials, and a microstructure control technology called Nanoalloy.
Komatsu dump truck
Komatsu Group, Japan’s big construction and mining equipment company, is branching out in similar fashion. A 100-percent subsidiary of Komatsu called Kelk is a quiet force behind the thermoelectric modules deployed in optical communication infrastructure and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Kelk, who exhibited for the first time at CEATEC Japan last week, is also promoting its new thermoelectric generator for the emerging IoT/energy harvesting market.
While many large Japanese electronics companies appear to have faltered in the global market, a number of small to medium-sized firms are still equipped with world-class expertise in unique materials for electronics, manufacturing skills in precision components and energy-efficient modules.
Kelk is just one of those companies.
As Hiroaki Takechi, CEO and president at Kelk, told us, his company’s thermoelectric module business wouldn’t have existed today without the R&D investment made by Komatsu in the 1950s. That’s when Komatsu researchers discovered bismuth telluride (BiTe), which is, said Takechi, essentially “a semiconductor.” When BiTe is alloyed with antimony or selenium, it becomes an efficient thermoelectric material for cooling (refrigeration) or power generation.
The thermoelectric effect is the direct conversion of temperature differences to electric voltage and vice versa. The Seebeck effect is the conversion of heat directly into electricity at the junction of different types of wire. Meanwhile, the presence of heating or cooling at an electrified junction of two different conductors is known as the Peltier effect.
Thermoelectric cooling uses the Peltier effect to create a heat flux between the junction of two different types of materials. Its main application, thus far, is refrigeration, but it can also be used as a temperature controller that either heats or cools.
A thermoelectric circuit composed of materials of different Seebeck coefficients (p-doped and n-doped semiconductors), configured as a thermoelectric generator.
Komatsu’s thermoelectric module business, launched within Komatsu’s labs, was spun off in 1966. It became a wholly owned subsidiary, Komatsu Electronics, in 1972, and changed its name to Kelk in 2008.
Next page: Semiconductor manufacturing equipment