Founded in 1910, Nihon Handa is a major Japanese supplier of soldering and sintering materials, chiefly delivering to manufacturers in the electric appliance, electronic equipment and automotive sectors. We spoke to Makoto Asami, Chairman & CEO, and Hidetomo Asami, President & COO, to learn more about the company and its products, such as the MAX series.
Japan has seen regional manufacturers in countries with a cheaper labor force able to replicate the technologies, processes, and products of advanced economies. However, we still see that Japanese firms have maintained either a high global market share or a technological advantage in some B2B and niche fields. How are Japanese companies able to maintain such a strong position despite the stiff price competition imposed by its Asian neighbors?
It is difficult to give a short answer to this question, and we cannot speak for all the Japanese companies. However, we have been conducting business in countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and ASEAN countries. Since the 2000s, we’ve also started business in China. We were able to gain first-hand experience and understanding of the difference between companies from these countries and Japan. However, I think there is not one definite answer as to why Japanese companies continue to hold such a strong position compared to other foreign companies. Some Japanese companies who venture out overseas succeed but some also fail. We believe it to be a case-by-case situation.
Nevertheless, I do have a macroeconomic understanding based on the Japanese history classes I learned in school and conversations I’ve had with my seniors when I entered the business. After Japan lost World War II, America’s occupation of Japan came with various programs to revive the Japanese economy. It is believed that many Japanese companies gained their strong positions during that period of Japanese industrial restoration after the war. The same could be said for Nihon Handa.
Moreover, the reason why Nihon Handa has distinguished itself in the soldering industry for many years is because we listen carefully to our customers’ needs and we offer customized tailor-made solutions for each of them. This is something our company has been famous for and it. One of the benefits of continuing a family business in a Japanese SME is that we are not pressured by stakeholders, especially shareholders like the bigger listed companies. From this point, it is not necessary to focus on short-term and highly profitable research themes, it is possible to customize the product to the customer's request, and it is possible to carry out R&D based on close cooperation with the customer.
This defines not only us, but the overall Japanese market. For example, American or European companies put most of their focus on the profit and not customer satisfaction, whereas we ensure that the customers will be happy to come back to us in the future.
Within the next 15 years, it is expected that one in three Japanese people will be over the age of 65, which would be challenging from a manufacturing and business perspective. Firstly, there is the shrinking of the domestic market. Secondly, there will be a decrease in the labor force. How is your firm facing the challenges posed by the Japanese demographic situation and Asian society?
Japan has a unique style of hiring employees. A lot of Japanese companies hire someone not because of their skills but because of their potential. Companies will then invest in educating and training their employees inside the company. Since soldering is a very small technical field with few universities conducting research, we strive to properly educate and train our employees in-house. Then we try to build a strong factory by improving the work based on ideas from the field. For example, it is possible to modify the equipment and/or train employees so that one person can do the work that was done by two people. This makes it possible to operate even with a small number of people.
Even if the same product is manufactured in the same industry, competition will be established because the know-how of each company is completely different. For example, if an engineer from Nihon Handa changes jobs to another competitor, that engineer would have to study again from zero. On the contrary, for engineers who have changed jobs from other competitors, we need to teach everything from scratch.
One of the big trends we’re seeing in both the semiconductor and the general electronic field has been miniaturization. The advancement of wearable electronics and a shrinkage of both semiconductors and PCBs in the automotive field, creates a direct effect on soldering which must now deal with a different environment. For example, there are new techniques created such as pressure-less sintering to avoid density variations. How is miniaturization impacting your business and how is it impacting the products in the technological development of your company?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the past 50 years for Nihon Handa have been a history of product development for miniaturization. Televisions, washing machines, and other electronic products in the past used to have large parts. The same goes for solders, as parts got smaller over time, soldering processes and technology have also adapted to match these changes. We have continued technological innovation in the past 50 years to adjust and keep up with the miniaturization trend. It is for this very reason that we were able to survive in this industry. For example, the shift to solder paste caused many businesses to close because they could not keep up with the shift. For the soldering industry, we think that technological development for the miniaturization trend has always and will continue to be important.
For example, Sony Japan developed the Walkman portable audio player. Up to that point, people had to go to where the radio cassette was to listen to music, but the arrival of the Walkman enabled people to listen to music anywhere they wanted. In order for these products to be portable, they had to be made smaller and lighter. Therefore, Sony Japan consulted with us when they decided to make the first Walkman. This was the game changer for electronics to become more portable, smaller, and lighter, and our involvement in this project also kick-started our efforts on miniaturization. Even now, we continue to listen and keep up with customer needs and we believe this to be one of Nihon Handa’s strengths.
Another major trend in the electronics and semiconductor market is the increase in use and consumption of electrical components in the automotive sector. Today, 20% of the value of a car comes from its electronics, and it is expected to be more than 50% in the next 10-20 years. What products have you developed for the automotive sector and how is Nihon Handa trying to address the increased demand for electronics in the automotive field?
We are indeed aware of this change in the industry. However, electronics for automotive vehicles have been in the market for a long time. In order for us to conduct business in the automotive industry, we need to pass the industry’s standards so that our products can be used. The standards for the automotive vehicle industry are far more difficult than that of electronic appliances. Therefore, solder quality checks for electronics appliances and automotive vehicles are completely different. Our company’s products which are made for automotive vehicles have to pass these difficult standards, and these products have to be especially considered and manufactured. We understand that the increase in demand for electronics for automotive vehicles will also lead to an increase in demand for such products in our company. Therefore, quality control for such difficult products that continue to grow in number presents a challenge to our company.
For example, the change from ICE to electric/smart vehicles would also come with an increase in demand for power semiconductors. Therefore, we would need to take these factors into consideration as well. This means we would need new materials that don’t melt or come off even if exposed to high-temperature environments. In the case of solder, it is necessary to raise the melting point of the alloy, and sintered material can be considered as another option. We were the first to launch sintered materials. Therefore, we are currently allotting a lot of our manpower and funds to the research and development of these products.
In 2008, you released the MAX series which is a sintering material that allows direct bonding of semiconductor elements within the devices themselves. One of the issues for sintering materials has been that sintering strength can sometimes decrease when exposed to high heat conductivity. Your MAX series for pressureless sintering seeks to answer that. Can you give us more details about this product and its applications?
Initially, we targeted the next-generation power semiconductors such as the silicon carbide (SiC) and the gallium nitride (GaN) in the development of the MAX series. These power semiconductors had the potential to maintain their performance even when exposed to temperatures up to 250°C and we developed a product that does not remelt at those temperatures. Originally, it was necessary to raise the temperature above the melting point to melt the solder, and then cool it to solidify it, but the newly proposed MAX applied sintering. A mixture of solvents and micro sized silver powder which after sintering at 200°C, could stand temperatures of up to 960°C. We already have had actual customers who have used this for their SiC power semiconductors.
The selling point of the MAX series, which makes it unique compared to its competing products, is that it is non-pressure. For example, when connecting chips of different sizes and thickness in IGBTs, the process of pressurizing is difficult to accomplish in one go so it has to be done to each chip one by one. This was a difficult and troublesome process to our customers, so we were very particular about the MAX series being sintered with no pressure. That it will enable our customers to get rid of this process and bond chips in one go.
Moreover, the MAX series also has high thermal conductivity of around 200W/m・K. When large currents flow, it is important to relieve the heat from power semiconductors. This feature of the MAX series also proves to be more of an advantage compared to its competing products.
Another feature of the silver sintering MAX series is lead-free bonding because it is sintered only with silver particles. Conventionally, lead-containing solder has been used for high-temperature bonding. Lead is very resistant to high temperatures, but it is not good for the environment. Since the MAX series is a lead-free bonding, we can meet the demands of our customers' environment.
Another change in the power semiconductor industry is the elements utilized with the appearance of compound semiconductors. Is this having an impact on your business?
Currently, the mobile phone network is shifting to 5G, and 5G base stations are being added. The chips in the amplifier of this base station are made of gallium nitride (GaN).
High heat-resistant materials are required for base station amplifiers, and there are customers who use our materials for this purpose.
They are also used for LED die attachments to improve the stability inside the LED bulb due to its high thermal conductivity and the absence of organic residue after sintering. This is because the gas generated from the organic residue may adhere to the chip surface and reduce the brightness or blur the image itself.
This can be avoided by introducing raw materials with better features such as our MAX series.
Can you talk to us about your international expansion strategy and what markets do you consider as key for growth potential in the future?
We are currently conducting business activities in countries such as Japan, ASEAN countries, and China. These countries still offer great potential and opportunities for business so we intend to expand to other countries once we’ve reached the maximum potential from these regions.
Nihon Handa’s customers are mostly electric companies. If our customers request for us to expand together with them in specific countries, there is a possibility we might consider it. For example, the reason why we decided to expand to Malaysia in 1995 was because we were conducting business with Sony Malaysia. Therefore, it is possible for us to expand to a specific country if our customers ask us to do so. At overseas bases, we will start our business centered on Japanese companies, but we are always making efforts to enhance our local presence by actively welcoming local companies as customers. We try to convey the Japanese hospitality to foreign customers.
What is the importance of co-creation and partnerships for your company especially as you tackle increasingly complex subsectors of the electronic field?
We develop and manufacture soldering materials according to customer needs. However, in order to meet the customer's request, it is necessary to answer with a total solution including the construction method, so we may proceed with exchanging information with the equipment company and propose a new construction method. For that purpose, it is very important to understand the customer's request clearly, and the sales staff needs to know not only the soldering materials but also the equipment and manufacturing method to use it. So it is necessary for us to listen carefully to the customer's request.
Imagine we come back in 5 years and have this interview all over again. What dreams and goals would you like to have achieved for the company by then?
First, we just built a new factory in Xiaogan, China and we plan to use this factory as a production base in the China region to expand our network and presence in China.
While also keeping a look out for China’s relations with the USA, we intend to make this factory the foundation of all production in China for the next five years.
As for the domestic market, even with the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the sales for semiconductors and automotive-related products have been growing and increasing in demand. Our goal is to increase capacity of production through investments on equipment. We intend to thoroughly lay out a plan on investments in equipment to establish our foundation for growth in the next 5, 10, 15, and 20 years.