Japan quake and its impact on Japanese robotic industry

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 23 August 2011



Kusuda, Y. (2011), "Japan quake and its impact on Japanese robotic industry", Industrial Robot, Vol. 38 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/ir.2011.04938eaa.003



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Japan quake and its impact on Japanese robotic industry

Article Type: News From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 38, Issue 5

The Japan quake and tsunami inflicted huge casualty to the Tohoku region, home of Japanese semiconductor, auto-parts, electronics devices and other components. The local industry supplies not only domestic Japanese demand for industrial products, but also those involved around the world. The quake and tsunami also destroyed electric power plants in the region. The destroyed supply chain of parts and materials together with the power outage affected Japanese manufacturing severely and already the effects are rippling around the world.

Major semiconductor manufacturers, Shin-Etsu Chemical’s Shirakawa plant and MEMC Electronic Materials’ Utsunomiya plant stopped manufacturing. These two facilities account for 25 percent of the global supply of silicon wafers. Since Shinetsu Shirakawa plant is the world biggest supplier of 300 mm wafers, the global supply of memory semiconductors will be impacted the most severely by the production stoppage. Renesas that has 42 percent market share world wide for microprocessor chips for car-control announced that its major plant, Naka plant, was damaged and a part of its production will be restarted only in June. Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Co., and Hitachi Kasei Polymer stopped production of raw materials for printed circuit boards that amounts 70 percent of the world wide supply. Many other manufacturing plants were damaged severely that will make a huge negative impact on the world wide supply chain of raw materials and components. It is unclear how long it would take to restore the damaged facilities and equipment.

The car industry that operates on just-in-time concept with least amount of inventory stock is the immediate victim of the disaster. It is now suffering from the shortage of parts and components. Many key component manufacturers are based in the worst hit region of Japan. Immediately, after the quake all the manufacturing facilities of the Japanese car industry halted operation. As of April 18, Toyota has resumed operations at all its 18 plants in Japan including sites in the disaster-hit Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. Honda and Nissan have also restarted production middle April but only at half capacity. A shortage of components has hit car production in Japan forcing a slowdown overseas as well. Analysts say it could be several months before normal supplies are resumed.

Currently, the operation rates of Toyota’s domestic and overseas plants are about 50 and 40 percent, respectively, due to the short supply of parts in the wake of the earthquakes.

The number of items that are potentially difficult to procure is said to be 150, including electronic parts, rubber parts and coating materials. A major supplier of brake pads Nippon Brake Industry’s unit was damaged by tsunami and no indication of restore since the plant is located within 20 km distance from disaster plagued Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. A type of shiny pigment called Xirallic, that is used in automobile paints is only produced by a single plant in Japan owned by a German chemical company, Merck KG, and is located in Onahama, that was damaged by the tsunami and was exposed to radiation spewing from the Fukashima No. 1 nuclear reactor. The company announced that the plant will be restarted early June. As for polypropylene that is used for bumper and other body components Mitsubishi Chemical Industry will resume production late May.

Electronic original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) world wide could be engaging in panic buying of semiconductors and electronic components, spurred by fears of supply disruptions from Japan. Electronic distributors are reporting a surge in orders from OEM customers, trying to ensure they have sufficient inventory on hand to ride out any interruption in supply.

Another big problem is the shortage of electric power in Eastern Japan. The quake and tsunami severely damaged power plants of Tokyo Electric Power Company, including the Fukushima Nos. 1 and 2 nuclear facilities that serve metropolitan Tokyo and neighboring greater Tokyo industrial area. TEPCO has lost more than 20 million kWh and was able to supply only 37.5 million kWh per day, not enough to meet the demand. The company is working hard to boost its supply capability by resuming operations at its idle power plants. After the quake, TEPCO installed a rolling blackout in Tokyo and vicinity that caused a big chaos. The government asks industry and general public to cut energy by 15 percent. Now in Tokyo the commuter train service is reduced, lightning of stores and public installation is dimmed, some of elevators and escalators are out of operation to save electricity and consumers plug out stand-by home appliances. But a worse scenario is expected in the coming summer. By the end of April, TEPCO is able to supply about 43 million kWh, which should meet demand at least for the time being. In hot summer, however, because of consumption for air conditioning, the daily demand is anticipated to 60 million kWh. TEPCO is trying to boost up its power by then, including another thermal facility that was damaged in the quake. But it is expected to secure only about 50 million kWh. Historically, Eastern Japan uses 50 Hz and Western Japan 60 Hz that makes power exchange between the two grids not easy. It can be done through frequency converters, but their total capacity is limited to 1 million kWh a day. The power shortage must impact further industries in TEPCO service area. Some of Japanese companies are now transferring their production to Western Japan to maintain production volume.

The quake caused no serious direct damage to Japanese robot industry since major Japanese robot manufacturers, Fanuc, Yaskawa, Kawasaki, Fujikoshi, Mitsubishi, Denso, all have no production base in this affected area. As for employees and facilities no casualty has been reported so far. However, its major clients, auto and electronic industries were greatly damaged. Short supply of electronic components will be inevitable. Power shortage in Eastern Japan might affect Fanuc’s headquarters plant and Yaskawa’s servomotor plant. At this moment nobody knows how big the impact of the disaster on the robotic industry will be.

Yoshihiro Kusuda

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