In free markets, the disorganized forces of competition normally coordinate to create the best-performing products at the lowest possible price. But in the electronics industry, where the cost of conducting R&D can be prohibitive, companies often need to unite instead of compete.
One of the industry’s newest consortia is the Chemical Materials Evaluation & Research Base, or Cereba, a laboratory near Tokyo supported by 11 Japanese firms that supply the electronics industry. By spreading the cost of expensive testing equipment among several companies, government-sponsored Cereba aims to help Japanese industry achieve leadership in new fields of electronics.
The main focus at Cereba so far is the development of lamps based on organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Several Japanese companies have developed materials that can be used in OLED lighting, and at Cereba they come together to develop tests for measuring their materials’ performance. The companies also test manufacturing processes for making OLED lamps and lighting systems.
Full name: Chemical Materials Evaluation & Research Base
Mission: Setting standards for performance measurement of materials used in advanced electronics; testing materials according to those standards
Location: National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology, Tsukuba campus, Japan
2011 budget: $19 million
Corporate members: Asahi Kasei, Fujifilm, Hitachi Chemical, JNC, JSR, Kaneka, Konica Minolta, Mitsubishi Chemical, Showa Denko, Sumitomo Chemical, Zeon
“Japanese manufacturers may become leaders in OLED lighting,” says Hiromi Takeuchi, executive vice president of Cereba. “But makers of OLED-based devices need data about the materials; for example, how long the materials can last.” Japanese companies are not focusing on OLED-based displays for electronics, Takeuchi notes, because South Korean firms are already able to mass produce in that sector.
Atsushi Kumano, general manager of R&D at JSR, a consortium member, says his firm needs the Cereba labs, which are equipped with manufacturing equipment and instruments that can measure longevity under varying conditions. “The equipment is definitely too expensive for our company alone,” says Kumano, noting that JSR has developed sealing materials for use in OLED devices. “The tests performed by Cereba provide us with powerful data.”
An emerging industry such as OLED lighting doesn’t have the benefit of materials performance standards or standardized manufacturing processes. Cereba intends to help create those standards—in Japan initially and perhaps for the rest of the world, if Japan’s standards become universal. Cereba’s research output, Kumano says, simplifies the job for firms making OLED-based devices. “In the end, it’s less work for our customers if we’ve already decided the standards for them,” he points out.
From initial concept to launch, Cereba came together rapidly. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry convened a meeting in April 2010 with representatives of Japanese electronic chemical companies to judge their interest in forming the consortium. Eleven companies decided to take part, and Cereba was set up in March 2011 at the Tsukuba campus of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology (AIST), a government-funded research organization.
Financial support for Cereba comes mostly from the government. In addition to the lab space at AIST, the government contributes 80% of the consortium’s budget, which was $19 million in 2011. Member companies have contributed 19 employees, half of the lab’s technical workforce.
Being government sponsored comes with certain restrictions. For instance, foreign companies are not allowed in the consortium, says Takashi Minakata, a senior researcher at Asahi Kasei who also works at Cereba. “It’s not possible,” he stresses. “It’s a consortium that uses Japanese government funds.”
At Cereba, researchers are now testing OLED lighting systems that emit white light and use either polyethylene naphthalate film or glass as a substrate. The consortium’s plan for 2013 is to start evaluating the performance of materials in devices that use polyethylene naphthalate as a substrate and are manufactured in a roll-to-roll process. Later on, Cereba will start developing completely new processes for manufacturing OLEDs in an effort to reduce costs.
Although they have their hands full evaluating materials for the emerging OLED lighting industry, Cereba managers say the consortium will likely expand its purview to other areas. Likely candidates include low-cost organic photovoltaic solar cells and new types of organic electronic devices.
Electronics industry consortia are not unique to Japan. In the U.S., Semiconductor Equipment & Materials International (SEMI), a trade association, has organized several. The most recent is the Collaborative Alliance for Semiconductor Test, a group that is open to companies from all over the world. That Cereba is closed to non-Japanese companies is not necessarily a fatal flaw, says Daniel Tracy, SEMI’s director of industry research and statistics. Japanese companies supply about two-thirds of the materials used in the electronics industry, Tracy notes.
And Cereba resembles NEMO, a consortium launched by the German government in 2009. Led by Merck KGaA, that group had a budget of $45 million to spend on discovering soluble materials to use in OLED display manufacturing.
Japan’s government has helped create electronics industry groups before, JSR’s Kumano notes. His company, he points out, is a member of the Japanese Consortium for Advanced Semiconductor Materials & Related Technologies, which focuses on the later stages of the semiconductor manufacturing process. The government has also set up consortia to help advance Japanese expertise in liquid-crystal displays and lithium-ion batteries.
On the whole, Kumano observes, Japan is a long way from the intensive level of government involvement that was common in past decades. The government, he recalls, played a critical role in the development of Japan’s semiconductor industry in the 1960s. But now, Kumano says, “they have spread out and thinned their efforts over many fields.”