Japanese industrial robot makers are starting to look at the automotive industry
With the slowdown in the growth rate of global smartphones, Japanese manufacturers that mainly produce robots for mobile phone manufacturers have begun to focus on the automotive industry, hoping to reduce the impact on their own businesses. Robots are still the strength of Japan's electronics industry, despite pressure from rivals in South Korea and Taiwan. For every 10 original assembly robots in the world, 8 are from Japanese companies such as Hi-Tech, Yamaha, Fuji Machinery, and Juki (JUKI). The fastest of these robots can assemble more than 20 components per second, and some are even less than 1/10th of a millimeter thick. By connecting 10 robots into a production line, 5,000 smartphones can be assembled in a day. However, as the growth rate of smartphone sales has dropped, the placement machine industry has also felt the pressure. Although placement machines are not Panasonic's core business, the division led by this niche business remains the key to the company's revival plan. However, the company's placement machine sales fell by 10% in the fiscal year to the end of March, and the business has a global market share of about 30%. Katsuhiko Omoto, head of Panasonic's factory automation division, sees little hope of a revival this year. 'We don't expect much growth,' he told Reuters in an interview at the company's headquarters. About a third of the cabinet-sized device ends up in factories in China, where it's used to assemble the company's iPhones or other mobile devices. According to estimates by market research firm Technavio, the global placement machine market will grow from the current US$4 billion to US$5 billion to US$7 billion in 2015. Panasonic has been losing money for years as the TV business is mired in the quagmire. The company will announce quarterly results for the April-June period later on Wednesday. Thomson Reuters' financial data services firm StarMine is on track for a roughly 30 percent rise in operating profit for the quarter to 50 billion yen ($510 million), according to forecasts compiled by top analysts based on precision and timeliness. Panasonic's parts assembly robot business contributes about 1.4% of the company's revenue, but its operating profit accounts for 6%. Smartphone sales are still growing. The US market research firm IDC predicts that global annual smartphone shipments will increase from 917 million units this year to 1.5 billion units in 2017, but the ultra-high growth rate experienced in the past five years will gradually slow down. IDC believes that sales in mature markets such as the United States will increase by about 15% this year, down from 20.6% last year, and will slow further to 4.6% in 2017. Growth in emerging markets will also slow to 12% from 35% last year. China accounts for about a third of global demand. Katsuhiko Omoto believes that Panasonic can increase its market share in chip mounters by partnering with a number of small Chinese phone makers that are gradually taking Apple's market. Apple's Greater China revenue from April to June this year plummeted 43% month-on-month. In addition, since the operating profit margin of Panasonic's placement machine business has dropped from 10% to 8%, KatsuhikoOmoto also plans to reduce the dependence on smartphone-related business from 30% to 25%, while increasing its focus on the automotive industry. sales. Adapting to Market Trends Automatic parking, collision warning systems, cameras, sophisticated engines, suspension management computers, etc., all add to the complexity of automotive electronic systems. In addition, the development of hybrid and electric vehicles also requires more electronic components than traditional gasoline vehicles. 'The electronic components of the car will only increase unabated,' said Naoki Kobayashi, deputy chief engineer of Toyota's Lexus brand. He pointed out that the company's most recent IS model has one-fifth more electronic control units than its predecessor. As a holding subsidiary of Hitachi, Hitachi High-Tech also hopes to tap opportunities from automakers and their supply chains. 'The smartphone and tablet markets seem to have peaked,' said Masatoshi Kurosawa, general manager of Hitachi High-Tech. He also added that no new consumer electronics products have yet been identified as a hedge against the smartphone decline. His company and other chip mounter makers usually get 10 months' notice of new product releases, because manufacturers need to purchase new production equipment early. Catering to industry needs Juki executive Hiroshi Nakamura said that if it were to switch to supplying equipment to the automotive industry, the placement machine would have to reduce its focus on speed and miniaturization, while focusing on enhancing traceability. 'The market has been focusing on smartphones in recent years, which shows that everyone is trying to produce high-speed devices,' he said. 'Automakers have stricter safety regulations, so they don't use sharp parts.' In the room, Hiroshi Nakamura showed off a robot that was able to take six pictures each time a part was assembled on a circuit board. This data is stored in a database so automakers can quickly trace production problems. Yamaha has been supplying mounters to the automotive industry for a long time. The company has also noticed that rivals that were originally focused on smartphones are also turning to the automotive industry, putting competitive pressure on the company. In response to this situation, the company began to cooperate with Chinese smartphone manufacturers. Although they purchased fewer Panasonic high-speed placement machines, Yamaha was able to automate processes such as assembling connectors that are still manually performed. The product is popular in Taiwan, where annual wages have risen by more than 10 percent, pushing up labor costs. 'Wages are rising in China, Thailand and Vietnam, which increases the appeal of automation,' said Hiroaki Fujita, head of Yamaha's placement machine business. Juki, which acquired the placement machine business last month, is also interested in this trend. 'As long as it is faster than manual operation, it is enough,' Hiroshi Nakamura said.