Has the Recession Really Slowed Japanese Development of Technologies?

In the last two years, eight WTEC delegations have had an opportunity to probe the issue of how the continuing Japanese recession has impacted R&D capabilities there. While there is some distress in other sectors of the economy, in science and technology the general conclusion is that the Japanese continue to advance relative to the United States. Table 2 summarizes findings from these and several other several recent WTEC panels covering Japan, including several studies that are still underway as of this writing. A 1995 panel on electronic manufacturing chaired by Michael Kelly confirmed that Japan has the most advanced electronic assembly manufacturing processes in the world. The study (funded by NSF, DARPA, NASA and DOC) also found that Japan leads the United States in almost every electronics packaging technology. Panel members expressed the view that Japanese competitors could be leading U.S. firms by as much as a decade in some electronic process technologies. Japan has established this marked competitive advantage in electronics as a consequence of developing low-cost, high-volume consumer products. Japan's infrastructure, and the remarkable cohesiveness of vision and purpose in government and industry, are key factors in the success of Japan's electronics industry.

A 1995 panel on human-computer interaction (HCI) technologies chaired by James D. Foley found that most Japanese HCI research is done in corporate labs, with university research playing a secondary role. Government funding is primarily from MITI to companies, but corporate investment in R&D in Japan is also strong: 7 - 8% of sales is invested. The best corporate labs are very similar to U.S. labs: ATR is like MCC, NTT is like Bellcore, and the Sony Computer Science Lab is like Xerox PARC. However, Japan conducts considerably less basic research in this field than do the United States and Europe, and the panel saw few empirical investigations of HCI systems. More R&D projects are underway in Japan than in the United States to help people with disabilities use computers. Much of such work the panel saw was quite good. Voice recognition and synthesis work will help those who are blind and will affect the quality of hearing aids as well. The United States is ahead of Japan in national information infrastructure research and commercial practice. In the video game industry, as well as other fields, Japan has a culture based on manufacturing. Most successful game platforms in the United States are Japanese in origin, while the software that runs on them is primarily from the United States.

A 1994 panel on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) chaired by Kensall Wise found that Japanese industry is emphasizing research approaches to similar to those taken in the U.S. These efforts are primarily based on lithographic integrated-circuit technology and are focused on sensor applications. Japanese industrial capabilities in these areas are comparable to those in the United States. The large ($250 million) ten-year MITI Micromachine Technology Project emphasizes the miniaturization of more traditional (nonlithographic) machining processes. This program involves twenty-four Japanese companies, many of which have larger ongoing internally-funded programs in MEMS-related areas. Substantial efforts to develop microactuators, microelectromechanical systems, and micromachines based on advanced lithographic processes exist in both countries. The United States leads in these areas and in sensor-circuit integration, although the Japanese programs are quite competitive, especially in realizing commercial products. MEMS researchers in Japanese universities are generally less well equipped than their U.S. counterparts and are trying a more diverse array of approaches and processes. Japan leads in nonlithographic approaches to MEMS. The infrastructures for MEMS development in the United States and Japan are different, but both are effective. Strengths of the Japanese efforts include the relatively high involvement of industrial residents at Japanese universities and the ability in Japan to set long-range goals and establish multidisciplinary multiorganizational teams to accomplish them.

A 1996 optical electronics panel chaired by Stephen Forrest found that Japan clearly leads in consumer optoelectronics, both countries are competitive in the areas of communications and networks, and the United States holds a clear lead in custom optoelectronics. However, consumer equipment and optical data storage account for 90% of the total optoelectronics market; both of these segments are dominated by Japan. Sales of the Japanese optoelectronic industry were $40 billion compared to $6 billion in sales by the U.S. Obviously Japan has had enormous success with its development strategies for optoelectronics, but the U.S. domestic industrial base in optical communications remains strong. Data communications and local area networks constitute a rapidly emerging new segment of the optical communications market. Both the Japanese and the U.S. industries are entering the field, neither with a clear lead at the present time. U.S. government funding of the optoelectronics industry appears to far outstrip Japan's government funding of the Japanese industry. This simple comparison, however, neglects the fact that a significant amount of U.S. government funding is earmarked for specialized products that meet niche government needs. Japanese government funding of optoelectronic research has long followed a pattern of investing in highly speculative projects targeted on mass markets, a few of which develop large payoffs. It appears that optoelectronics is regarded in Japan as a major vehicle to propel Japanese electronic product dominance into the next century.

TABLE 2. SUMMARY OF RECENT WTEC FINDINGS CONCERNING JAPAN

* STUDIES IN PROGRESS
**A = JAPAN AHEAD OF U.S.; B = JAPAN AND U.S. EVEN; C = JAPAN BEHIND U.S.; UP ARROW INDICATES THAT JAPAN GAINING RELATIVE TO U.S.

A 1997 metal castings panel chaired by Merton Flemings reports that despite the recession the best Japanese foundries maintain strong R&D activities. They are moving manufacturing offshore, including to the United States, and because of continuing investment in incremental improvement and in process innovations, these offshore foundries will be strong competitors. In broad overview, the United States leads Europe in manufacturing but lags behind Japan. Japan leads in some technological areas (squeeze casting, metal mold casting, foundry ceramics, and energy conservation). Government support of foundry R&D in Japan is primarily directed toward new processes and new materials. Research institutes and some universities are performing leading studies in these areas. The emphasis of industrial R&D, on the other hand, is primarily on cost reduction through incremental improvements. Japanese companies invest more in worker education and training than do their U.S. counterparts. In Japan, there is a high level of university/government/industry interaction in R&D planning and prioritization.

A 1996 panel chaired by George Gamota found that Japan's growing basic research program has been increasingly successful. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce commissioned the panel of U.S. experts to evaluate two Japanese basic research programs administered by the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC -- recently combined with JICST under the new name JSTC): The Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) program started in 1981, and the Precursory Research for Embryonic Science and Technology (PRESTO) program, which followed in 1991. The research performed under ERATO is of high quality, with several projects leading to the development of world-class research. ERATO has spun-off more than fourteen new research programs in Japan. Within JRDC alone, ERATO's success has spawned three complementary programs, and other agencies have also followed ERATO's lead in funding more basic research. In spite of economic problems in Japan, JRDC's budget has nearly doubled recently.

A 1996 panel on rapid prototyping chaired by Fritz Prinz found that the United States is ahead in technical innovations, materials, and manufacturing applications of layered manufacturing technology. In the area of machine design, the United States is at parity with Europe and Japan. In rapid prototyping for medical applications, U.S. efforts are behind those of Europe and Japan. Japan has implemented major domestic programs to systematically create an infrastructure of strategic RP technologies. Ironically, Japan's excellent model building craftsmen and advanced numerical control machining technology may have slowed introduction of competing RP techniques.

Two recent delegations have studied superconductivity research in power applications and in electronics applications, respectively. Leaders of Japanese industry and government believe that both high and low temperature superconductivity are vital technologies for the next century and are making substantial investments in R&D--the government-sponsored program is now twice the size of the comparable U.S. one.

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Presented: July 1997; HTML: 9 August 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian