The latest chapter in the thousands of years of ceramic-making history is being written at a factory in Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture.
“Even if a one-thousandth of one-millimeter dent is found on the surface, the board cannot be used. The accuracy required is extremely high,” says Yoshimitsu Saeki, 56, an executive of Toto Ltd., the plant’s operator.
Each board is 3 meters long and 1 meter wide and must be absolutely flawless to be of any use in the liquid crystal panel production lines for which it is intended. The ceramic’s strong heat resistance makes it ideal for ensuring the glass used in making smartphones, tablet computers and flat-panel televisions does not buckle.
From the dawning of sculpture with the Czech Republic’s Dolni Vestonice Venus in 25,000 B.C. to the ceramic water closets of the 19th century, nearly every chapter of the human story has included a footnote from the history of pottery and, judging by Japan’s thriving fine ceramics industry, the 21st century looks unlikely to be an exception.
Toto, based in Kita-Kyushu, and better known as Japan’s dominant toilet maker, entered the high-tech ceramics business in 1984 and now produces a range of parts used in optical communications and lighting products.
NGK Insulators Ltd., originally a wiring insulator company based in Nagoya, makes ceramics products used in semiconductor manufacturing and car exhaust purification technology. Its non-insulator business now accounts for about three-quarters of its sales.
Other Japanese companies, including Murata Manufacturing Co., Taiyo Yuden Co. and TDK Corp., have all established powerful presences in the field, with Japan taking a dominant position similar to its role in the global semiconductor market in the 1990s.
Japanese high-tech “fine ceramic” production passed 1 trillion yen (about $12.5 billion) in 1988. After the collapse of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in autumn 2008, production fell sharply from 2.396 trillion yen in 2007 to 1.579 trillion yen in 2009, according to the Japan Fine Ceramics Association (JFCA).
However, it is thought to have bounced back to about 2 trillion yen in 2011.
Green technologies are a growth area. For instance, a cell stack designed to generate electricity in fuel cells by Kyoto-based Kyocera Corp. is being used in a fuel cell for home use that was put on sale in October 2011 for 2.7 million yen, including tax.
A spokesperson for Kyocera admitted that the cell stack was still a fringe product in the company’s portfolio, but said the company hoped sales would grow.
Competition is getting stiffer, with South Korea’s Samsung Electro-Mechanics now approaching Murata’s market share, and profit margins in areas like smartphones falling. But Toto President Kunio Harimoto, whose company still relies on traditional toilet, bath and kitchen products for 97 percent of its sales, says the high-tech sector represents the future.
He wants high-tech ceramics to account for more than 8 percent of Toto’s sales by 2017 and grow into a major earner.
“Manufacturing high-accuracy products based on our own technologies is necessary for our company to survive,” Harimoto says.
Kenji Tomita, a senior official at the JFCA, says: “The business performances of domestic fine ceramics makers will depend on whether they can produce new, high-function products.”
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