Murata wants to build from MEMS to Internet of Things

Murata wants to build from MEMS to Internet of Things

Business news |
By eeNews Europe

Murata (Kyoto, Japan) is often billed as a passives-to-power-supplies giant. With annual sales of 584.7 billion yen (about $7.34 billion) in the year to March 31, 2012, Murata is definitely a giant and one that is well known for its multilayer ceramic capacitors, but it makes a broad range of components including wireless modules and a variety of sensors.

In an interview with president Tsuneo Murata, conducted during his visit to the newly acquired MEMS manufacturer VTI Technologies Oy (Vantaa, Finland) here – as it was renamed Murata Electronics Oy – EE Times asked Murata about the company’s acquisition strategy.

Was it about moving away from passives and up in terms of complexity and value? "Murata has produced sensors for 20 years. But without creating such good quality as VTI," said Murata. "Yes we are going to go in that direction but not go too far away from the original business."

And Murata emphasized that it is not just about the product complexity and value but also about the end markets. "In the case of VTI they are very strong in automotive and industrial, areas where Murata is not so strong."

Murata’s strengths traditionally lie in communications and consumer applications with 45 percent of sales in communications, 19 percent in PCs and peripherals and 10 percent in audio-visual consumer electronics, Murata said. About 75 percent of VTI sales are into the automotive sector where it is a leading supplier of accelerometers, gyroscopes and combo units for electronic stability control (ESC).

Murata acquired VTI, which manufactures MEMS on 150-mm diameter wafers, in January 2012 for about 20 billion yen (about 190 million euro or $260 million) in cash, so what does the company intend to do with it?

"We want to reinforce the business in automotive. Then we want to have new products in the consumer area," said Murata. Murata said automotive is good business and expanding as the electronics content of automobiles goes up. Providing MEMS to the consumer sector will be a next step. The consumer market is quite different to the automotive and medical sectors where VTI has been strong, characterized by less demanding specifications but thin margins and downward price pressure. "It’s very tough to compete [in consumer]. We need to have a good strategy," said Murata. "To get into consumer we may need to utilize some outsourcing," he added.

This suggests that rather than expand into 200-mm wafer processing in Vantaa the company is more likely to work with one of the mainstream IC foundries, such as GlobalFoundries Inc., or Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd., that have fabs in southeast Asia, and who are eager to expand into MEMS production.

What is Murata’s approach to developing countries such as China, India?

"We have two factories in China, one in Wuxi and one in Shenzhen, making MLCCS and wireless communications modules and power supplies." Murata goes on to indicate that China has become the world’s electronics factory, stating that 50 percent of all of Murata’s production is shipped to China for assembly into equipment. That equipment then goes all over the world. He adds that Murata is starting to develop design functions in China for power supplies and wireless communications modules.

However, some 80 percent of Murata’s production is in Japan while 85 percent of sales are outside of Japan, which makes the company sensitive to exchange rates, Murata said. "So we try to encourage production outside Japan; in China, Thailand, Singapore." The next step is to open an MLCC factory in the Phillipines in 2013, he added.

So after MEMS will Murata continue to move up in complexity and into digital electronics and software?

"We have that capability," says Murata. "We acquired Sychip. They produce wireless communications modules based on the Wi-Fi standard. They also have software capability for protocol for communications module. Using these kind of people we are trying to develop wireless sensor networks, which can be used in smart house; smart way to use electricity, lighting dimmers, airconditioning, temperature monitoring."

Murata said this strategy links into the Internet of Things or IoT which is a popular topic, but particularly in China and Japan. "We’re not sure how soon this technology will be used in the market."

When asked why China and Japan are pursuing IoT so aggressively Murata responded: "One reason is the energy crisis in Japan. We have shut down all the nuclear plants. And in China the demand for electricity is increasing very rapidly and they face environmental issues."

As a final question EE Times asked Murata about his company’s approach to supporting startup companies that, because they are agile, can often be source of new technologies that electronics giants may then choose to acquire.

"We always watch the movement of technology. We want to know if new technology will displace some of our business. We always watch those activities at new companies and amongst research people," Murata said, without mentioning funding startups.

"Acquisition is not the only way to extend our technology. We may collaborate in partnerships. We do some investment of funding for new development at companies and with universities."

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