Panasonic Seiko Epson lead MEMS resurgence in Japan

February 17, 2011 – NikkeiPanasonic Corp. (6752) and Seiko Epson Corp. (6724) are leading Japanese companies’ resurgence in the microelectromechanical system (MEMS) market for sectors such as consumer electronics, video game systems, and telecommunications equipment as sensors and switches.

Japanese firms were global leaders back in the 1990s, making such parts as sensors for car airbags. But the 2000s saw major U.S. and European semiconductor companies enter the field, grabbing market share by making massive capital investments and sharply boosting production efficiency. The global MEMS market will grow roughly 140% to 16.46 billion dollars in 2015 from the 6.99 billion dollars of 2009, according to French research firm Yole Developpement.

Swiss firm STMicroelectronics NV has risen to No. 1 in the global MEMS sensor market by leveraging its production capacity and price-competitiveness. The firm’s sensors are used in Nintendo Co.’s (7974) Wii home game console, which takes advantage of a MEMS acceleration sensor.

Panasonic, a major player in MEMS tilt sensors, is leading Japanese companies’ resurgence in the MEMS market, with its sales jumping 67% on the year in 2009. Smartphones are often equipped with multiple MEMS components, including sensors for detecting tilt. The parts are also used in inkjet printer nozzles and automobile electronic stability control systems. Samsung is believed to have already become the world’s No. 1 player in automotive MEMS tilt sensors.

Seiko Epson also holds a high market share in MEMS components for inkjet printers. A subsidiary, Epson Toyocom Corp., is also focusing on development and production of MEMS sensors. Epson Toyocom’s quartz acceleration and tilt sensors offer more accurate readings than their conventional silicon-based counterparts.

Like STMicroelectronics, Omron Corp. (6645) manufactures MEMS using production facilities that can handle 200mm silicon wafers. This gives it an advantage over many of its domestic peers, which use 150mm facilities. Omron makes MEMS pressure sensors.

U.S. firm Knowles Electronics dominates the market for MEMS microphones, commanding a roughly 80% share. One of the companies that supply MEMS chips to Knowles is Sony Corp. (6758) unit Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corp.

Hosiden Corp. (6804) and TDK Corp. (6762) are working to take market share away from Knowles by introducing smaller products.

New Japan Radio Co. (6911) entered the MEMS microphone market recently.

Yokogawa Electric Corp. (6841) is another Japanese firm with advanced MEMS technology. It is sharply increasing its share of the precision measuring instruments market, thanks in part to its pressure sensors made using its proprietary MEMS technology.

Hitachi Ltd. (6501) incorporates its own MEMS components into some of its medical equipment.

In MEMS-related fields, Sumitomo Precision Products Co. (6355) commands about 70% of the worldwide market for silicon and quartz deep-etching systems, an essential tool for producing MEMS components.

Foreign firms control more than half of the global market for MEMS design software. Among Japanese companies, Mizuho Financial Group Inc. (8411) dabbles in the field via the Mizuho Information & Research Institute. Nihon Unisys Ltd. (8056) unit UEL Corp. also handles such software.

Translated from an article by Nikkei staff writer Tamaki Kyozuka, The Nikkei Veritas Feb. 13 edition

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