Site: Sharp Central Research Laboratories
2613-1, Ichinomoto-cho, Tenri
Nara 632, Japan
Date Visited: December 19, 1994
Report Author: G. Day
The Sharp Corporation was founded in 1912 and has a long record of new high-technology product introductions. Its first product was the Eversharp Pencil, introduced in 1915, from which the company took its name. In the 1920s and 1930s, the company focused on radio; in the 1950s, it introduced TV to the Japanese market; in the 1960s, it introduced microwave ovens and electronic calculators; and in the 1970s, it introduced liquid crystal displays and a variety of products they enabled. In 1981, Sharp introduced low-cost laser diodes that made possible the development of compact disk technology. In 1988, Sharp introduced large (14 in.) thin-film transistor LCD color displays, and it has continued to develop that technology.
Sharp's Central Research Laboratories are located in what is known as the Sharp Tenri Compound in the southern part of Nara, adjacent to its IC and LCD manufacturing facilities. Sharp has 22 other laboratories, including the Multimedia Systems Research and Development Center in Chiba, the Functional Devices laboratories in Chiba, the Energy Conversion Laboratories in another part of Nara, and Sharp Laboratories of Europe (in Oxford, UK), which is a largely independent laboratory established to support European subsidiaries. Sharp has nearly 27 manufacturing facilities around the world.
Sharp identifies ten technologies in which it works: new materials, devices, optoelectronics, displays, recording, printing, information processing, telecommunications, environment/energy, and production/design. These support five applications areas: multimedia/audiovisual (AV) systems, telecommunications systems, recording/printing systems, information processing systems, and home electronic amenity systems. The mission of the R&D laboratories is described as the development of demand-creating products.
Several areas of technology were discussed, primarily semiconductor lasers, optical data storage, and displays.
Sharp introduced the 780 nm low-cost laser for CD players in 1981, and in the mid 1980s it had a 70% market share, though that is now considerably smaller. The lasers were VSIS types, grown by LPE. The laser fabrication process was fully developed in the research laboratories and transferred to a business unit as a mature technology. The research laboratories are now focused on the development of blue-green sources, particularly for the digital video disk market. The laboratories have concluded that sources based on second harmonic generation will not be suitable for this application, because of their size. To date, Sharp researchers have focused on II-VI materials. The laboratories have what appear to be high-quality lasers in the blue and green, which they use for data recording, but they regard their work as being behind that of Sony (which has achieved 1 hr operation at room temperature). They are just beginning to work on GaN, and regard their work as behind that of Nichia. However, Sharp representatives expressed the hope that they would be "first in production technology."
Sharp presently sells 14 in. TFT LCD displays but has developed 17 in. and 21 in. versions. The latter are not sold because the costs of manufacturing are still too high for the market. From a business point of view, Sharp management feels it doesn't make sense to concentrate on 21 in. displays. Sharp has also developed and markets LCD video projection systems that have resolutions comparable to NTSC broadcast television. Sharp had introduced a version with substantially greater brightness than its initial product. The devices at the time of the JTEC visit had a resolution of 1280 x 1024 for each color, which is close to that of HDTV. Sharp expects large markets in HDTV and overhead projectors. Sharp presently has a 45% share of the LCD display market.
Sharp has a goal for the year 2000 of 40 in. diagonal, direct view display. Company representatives doubt that this will be possible with its current nematic liquid crystal technology, except by placing four of their 21 in. displays together; they are considering potential new technologies. One alternative that company researchers think has significant potential is ferroelectric liquid crystals.
Sharp has focused on magneto-optic data storage technology and acknowledges surprise at the rate of development of phase-change rewritable (PCR) technology (see Matsushita site report). Sharp is "keeping a watchful eye" on PCR and may or may not decide to work on it. At the time of the JTEC visit, Sharp's engineers had concluded that the biggest disadvantage of PCR is the greater laser power required, which they projected to be 50% greater than for MO. MO requires 40 mW, and 60 mW is thought to be difficult to achieve in a low-cost device. They expect that MO will continue to dominate for data recording, but PCR will compete for video disks. They think that technical issues will be only one part of determining the winner; market issues, standardization, and momentum will be important factors. They hope that MO will be the winner in all of the applications areas.
Sharp's goal for the year 2000 is the ability to store 135 minutes of HDTV video on a 120 mm disk. Shifting from red to blue sources is not sufficient to achieve this. Better compression technology might help, but in the end they may need to use a somewhat larger disk.
Sharp is working on a such a system for intelligent control of appliances, and presumably for monitoring alarms, etc. It does not carry video and is not connected to the power company for energy management or a security service company for monitoring alarms.
Sharp participates in MPT's Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR) Laboratory near Takanohara. The company has one researcher in each of the 4 or 5 laboratories there, who will stay at the ATR for 2 or 3 years working in precompetitive research areas. So far, no commercial products have resulted from Sharp's involvement in the ATR. Management sees it more as a training ground and a place to gain insight into new technologies.
Sharp has a three-tier corporate technology development structure: corporate research, R&D associated with the business units, and technology development associated with the business units. The role of each of these entities varies with the nature of the technology. Generally, technology is transferred to business units along with people who have developed it. And generally, this is a permanent transfer.
Automation is generally developed jointly by the business unit and a corporate-level production technology development (PTD) group. This group consists of 100 to 200 staff who work primarily on fundamental manufacturing issues in three laboratories. The centralized PTD facility works with people located in the various business units who, although knowledgeable about the specific business-unit application, are still members of the PTD group. Sharp decides when to automate based first on the objective of reducing overall cost by reducing the number of people required. Initially, however, as the company introduces automated processes, more people are often needed. A second consideration is to increase output. For example, Sharp has recently introduced a new computer-integrated manufacturing system (CIM) on the silicon line to increase volume and reduce costs. The CD laser line is fully automated except for the chip dicing, where the company still relies heavily on manual work.
In response to a question, the JTEC panel's hosts at Sharp acknowledged that virtual reality systems were being considered for use in automated production, and prototypes had been developed.
Sharp Corporation. Sharp: Profile of the Corporate Research and Development Group
_____. Sharp: Imagination and Creativity (profile of the company and its products)
_____. Sharp Laboratories of Europe (laboratory profile)
_____. Sharp Memorial Hall/Technology Hall (brochure giving an historical perspective of company products)
Specifications on 2 projection display devices (in Japanese)