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Optics industry on steady ground after quake

Ashley N. Paddock, ashley.paddock@photonics.com

TOKYO – One year after the devastating tsunami and earthquake in Japan, there are no lasting effects on the optics industry, and all supply chain problems have been resolved, according to two executives from Edmund Optics Japan Co. Ltd.

The 9.0-magnitude quake that hit on March 11, 2011, was the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the largest in Japan since modern records of such events began being kept 130 years ago. Nearly 16,000 people died, and the World Bank’s estimated economic cost was $235 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster to date. The quake struck about 80 miles east of Sendai in Honshu, about 231 miles northeast of Tokyo.

“The majority of the optics industry in Japan is not located within the tsunami zone,” said Timothy Paul Kennedy, sales director at Edmund Optics Japan.

Shortly after the quake, Edmund Optics said it did not suffer any major structural damage and was considering transferring some of its work to its Singapore and Pennsburg, Pa., facilities. Hamamatsu Photonics also expected problems to be supply chain-based, but anticipated only minor delays.

“For most of the manufacturing across Japan, the quake only affected the logistics, which was back on regular schedule within roughly three to six weeks,” Kennedy said.

The optics industry in Japan began more than 100 years ago when an optical research lab opened in Tokyo in 1906. Since it began producing rangefinders during World War I, the industry has grown into the research and manufacture of precision glass, filters, coatings, aspheres, electro-optics and precision optical assemblies, among others. (For more on why optics manufacturing in Japan is still relevant, see the September 2010 article in Photonics Spectra, page 48.)

The majority of supply issues resulting from the quake were mainly in the digital camera, automotive and memory device markets, as well as some other industries, Kennedy said, but even in those industries, companies were able to qualify second sources that ramped up production quickly to meet demand and reduce delays.

“We have not seen many customers moving away from the Japanese market,” said Kaz Shibata, senior sales manager at Edmund Optics Japan. “However, many Japanese companies are considering moving more of the low-end production overseas.” That’s not a result of the tsunami, he added, but rather of the strong Japanese yen.

“Due to problems in other parts of the world, such as the floods in Thailand, Japan has planned to move many factories from Thailand back to Japan while also considering moving to other areas,” Shibata said.

Because of the high value of the yen, many companies have a good opportunity now to buy space outside of Japan for lower-precision products, he said. “This will continue to fuel the need for Japan to spend on R&D for next-generation technologies, while keeping the precision production in Japan.”

“Although Japan suffered such a devastating event, the Japanese people reacted quickly to ensure the business supply continued,” Kennedy said.


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