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Murata looks for opportunities in emerging markets

Many engineers will associate Murata with the development and sales of capacitors. And there is good reason; when Akira Murata set up his company in 1944, he started making titanium oxide ceramic capacitors for use with heterodyne radio receivers.

Since then, the company has diversified significantly. Alongside ‘traditional’ commodity components, such as ceramic capacitors and inductors, Murata is now involved in application specific products, including sensors, and functional materials, including wireless power. “That is a new opportunity,” Satoshi Sonoda, executive vice president of the company’s Global Sales and Marketing Unit, pictured, told New Electronics in an exclusive interview at electronica in November 2016.

From its origins in a 150m2 building in Kyoto, Murata now employs more than 54,000 people in operations in Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Although intrinsically associated with capacitors, Murata is driven by mobile phones and industrial applications. Sonoda noted: “More than 60% of the company’s revenue comes from the mobile phone sector and I think this will continue. While we believe the number of smartphones will not grow as quickly as in the past, the electronics content – particularly the RF element – will increase.

“We expect LTE and 5G to be a fundamental driver of the business,” he continued.

While the mobile phone sector is important, Murata is looking at other markets with growth prospects. “In the medium term – until 2018 – we will be focusing on automotive, healthcare and energy. For example, autonomous cars and ADAS will need more and more electronic content. The same applies for electric vehicles,” he added. “More and more components will be needed.”

And 2018 is an important date for Murata as it marks the end of its most recent mid term target. Under a recently developed plan, the company is looking to grow by up to 10% a year by expanding into new markets and to lay the foundations for longer term growth.

“Energy and healthcare are quite small markets for Murata at the moment,” Sonoda remarked, “but we are laying the foundations for future R&D.”

As an example, Murata points to the electrification of vehicle powertrains in order to meet environmental regulations around the world. It says this will see growing demand for passive components and timing devices that can operate at 125°C. It also believes there will be increasing opportunities for its MEMS sensors in stability control, ultrasonic sensors in automatic parking and high precision sensors for monitoring the vehicle’s state of operation. Meanwhile, V2X modules are under development.

But capacitors have not been forgotten by any means. “We have a strategy to be a one stop shop for capacitors,” Sonoda pointed out. “As long as customers buy capacitors, we will provide them with any type of capacitor technology.”

Like almost every other company, Murata is looking to benefit from the Internet of Things. “IoT customers will be looking for sensing and connectivity products,” he said. “We are ready to provide them; sensors and gateways will be key devices in the IoT.”

Research and development remains an important part of Murata’s philosophy. “We are currently investing between 7 and 8% of our sales revenue into R&D,” Sonoda pointed out. But Murata has realised that it can’t develop all the technology needed for future applications. “In order to develop these new technologies and to meet customer requirements,” Sonoda said, “we need more and more open innovation and collaboration with partners – especially for semiconductors. To meet this need, we have recently acquired technology which might otherwise have taken us longer to develop in house.

“We plan to maintain this level of investment in R&D – and we think it’s more than our competitors are spending.”

Not only is Murata continuing to develop products internally, it has also made a number of significant acquisitions. Recently, it acquired liquid crystal polymer specialist Primatec and high performance silicon capacitor developer IPDiA.

The Primatec acquisition has interesting potential. According to the company, it will work with Primatec to develop MetroCirc, a multilayer bendable resin substrate for smartphones and other communications devices. It notes that MetroCirc will make it possible to integrate various components into the substrate, allowing it to act as a functional module.

Alongside joint ventures, Murata is developing relationships with universities, government institutes and service providers. “What kind of technology customers are looking for is important in order for us to work out what it is we have to develop,” Sonoda remarked.

Part of this approach has seen Murata create an open innovation centre. “We invite universities and institutes to visit this centre,” he continued, “to discuss technologies and to create new ideas.”

Looking globally, Sonoda said that Europe is an important region for Murata. “Not only is the automotive industry important to Murata, there is also significant interest in industry and factory automation. New technology will be needed for all these sectors.

“We’re connecting our R&D locations in order to develop our business, but it’s also important to note that many of our customers have their own R&D operations in Europe.”

While China is growing in potential, Europe and the US remain very important markets for Murata. “And that means we continue to increase our engineering resources in both regions.”

Is Murata looking to develop system level products? “We don’t have enough technology to create system level products on our own,” Sonoda admitted. “But we are looking to work in association with integrators, who will use our hardware to create solutions. Together, we can work to introduce systems; particularly for IoT applications,” he concluded.

Satoshi Sonoda
Satoshi Sonoda joined Murata Manufacturing’s Tokyo branch in 1983. In 1987, he was transferred to Murata Electronics Singapore and, in 1998, to Murata Electronics North America, where he was involved in sales and planning operations.

Following this, he worked in Murata’s Hong Kong and Shanghai offices before returning to the North American operation in 2009.

In 2011, he was appointed vice president and deputy director of Murata’s Device Business Unit and promoted to director in 2012. Since 2015, Sonoda has been executive vice president and director of Murata’s Global Sales and Marketing Unit.

Author
Graham Pitcher

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