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Murata turns to tiniest device for big business

Associated Press Modified: September 5, 2012 at 2:00 am •  Published: September 5, 2012

TOKYO (AP) — Small is big for Murata: The Japanese electronics maker has developed the world's tiniest version of a component known as the capacitor. And that's potentially big business.

Capacitors, which store electric energy, are used in the dozens, even in the hundreds, in just about every type of gadget — smartphones, laptops, parts for hybrid cars, medical equipment and digital cameras. Smaller componentry allows for other innovations and improvements from thinner devices to longer battery life.

The latest capacitor, measuring just 0.25 millimeter by 0.125 millimeter, is as tiny as the period at the end of this sentence.

Murata Manufacturing Co.'s focus on highly specialized technological breakthroughs, such as the one announced Wednesday, also underlines the challenges confronting Japan's electronics industry — once unquestioned leaders but now taking a beating from cheaper Asian rivals.

Japanese makers have struggled to compete against South Korean rivals and manufacturers in Taiwan, China and the rest of Asia with access to cheaper labor. The Japanese are also fighting the strong yen, which erodes the value of its earnings.

"The power of Japanese high-tech makers is waning — in development, marketing and management. And it can't all be blamed on a strong yen," said Rick Oyama, analyst with market researcher HIS iSuppli in Tokyo. "What counts is whether a company can deliver creative products and innovation."

Murata, based in the ancient capital of Kyoto, central Japan, is best known for its bicycle-riding robot, which showcases its delicate sensor technology. But since its founding in 1944, the company's core business has been ceramic capacitors.

The latest super-small capacitor is a quarter of the size of the previous smallest ceramic capacitor, also developed by Murata, in 2004.

Murata Executive Vice President Yukio Hamaji, who heads the component business, said that building something so small that is composed of even tinier layers of material to store electricity, is a challenge, requiring precision in preparing raw materials and baking the ceramic.

"This is so small you can barely see it," he told The Associated Press. "You can imagine how difficult making something that small can be, and do it in mass production and in stable supply."

Murata is the world No. 1 in market share and production capacity in ceramic capacitors.

It controls about 35 percent of that market, trailed by Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co., which is the component unit of South Korea's Samsung, with about 20 percent of the market.

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