Under the Taiwanese ownership, Sharp's LCD research engineers aren't just surviving but having a second life. But their focus is no longer on 8K.

After Foxconn’s $3.5 billion takeover of Sharp last year, how are the Japanese LCD giant’s engineers and researchers faring? If they haven’t already defected, how are they coping with change? Are they demoralized as their Taiwanese owner reportedly clamps down on Japanese spending habits?

I talked with R&D engineers at Sharp’s booth during CEATEC Japan (Japan's equivalent to Consumer Electronics Show) this week, and was pleasantly surprised to find them not just surviving but rather invigorated.

These are experienced researchers from Sharp’s Materials and Energy Technology Laboratories. After honing their skills for years on the underlying technologies for Sharp’s LCDs, they now seem to have a second wind. Now, they’re applying their knowhow to development of new productes, helping “makers” accelerate in their business and mass production processes, or getting on with their own business spinouts.

Among specific projects they’re engaged in is “Tekion Lab,” Sharp’s technology to cool food and drinks at temperatures other than 0 centigrade. Also, there’s a smart footwear product called Orphe designed by a startup, and a daylighting film developed by Sharp to redirect sunlight from windows deeper into a room and onto ceilings, to increase natural light.   

There are two distinct threads tying these eclectic projects all together. First, they are based on fundamental technologies born out of Sharp LCD development. Second, these are the “post-LCD” agendas these researchers have long craved but somehow couldn’t quite pull off ’til Foxconn came along.

Changing R&D structure

Yuka Utsui
Yuka Utsui

Yuka Utsumi, senior manager at Sharp’s Materials & Energy Technology Labs, is CTO of Tekion Lab. She explained, “Fundamentally, liquid crystal is in a state between solid and liquid. As an LCD designer, we know how to maintain materials at a certain temperature.”

For example, ice can only maintain temperature at its melting point, which is 0 degrees celsius. But what if we could keep different types of food and drinks cool at temperatures other than zero?

By using its liquid-crystal expertise, Tekion (“appropriate temperature” in Japanese) Lab has created thermal materials with differing melting points. The team now has materials that “can start melting exactly at targeted temperatures,” said Utsumi.

(Photo: EE Times)
(Photo: EE Times)

The seeds of this idea of keeping food cool at the right temperature already existed when Sharp made a new refrigerator specifically designed for the Indonesian market in 2014. After frequent blackouts in the region, Sharp developed a model that can protect food with a variety of “freezing” temperatures.

In those days, Sharp’s R&D existed for the sake of its main product divisions, noted Utsumi. When researchers developed new technologies, the first ones to commercialize them were those who make refrigerators. After Foxconn’s takeover, however, “Our Labs have installed our own product divisions,” she noted.

Tekion Lab, a venture project within Sharp’s R&D unit, once considered spinning off, Utsumi said. While this might still happen, she noted, the team decided to walk before they can run, partnering with customers and crowd-funding products.

Sharp makes a new cocktail: Dry gin with green tea
(Photo: EE Times)
Sharp makes a new cocktail: Dry gin with green tea (Photo: EE Times)

Earlier this year, Tekion Lab ran a successful campaign for a product that keeps Japanese rice wine at minus-2 centigrade. At CEATEC, the team is showing off a new cocktail, a craft dry gin with green tea, recently launched on Makuake, Japan’s leading crowd-funding site.

Under the Taiwanese ownership, Sharp's LCD research engineers aren't just surviving but having a second life. But their focus is no longer on 8K.

Bootcamp
Japan is also seeing momentum behind the maker movement, especially in IoT. However, despite creative product ideas, startups often lack experience in mass production, reliability testing, quality control and after-service programs. That’s where Sharp can step in.

Taking advantage of its volume production experience as the world’s leading LCD maker, Sharp is offering startups “Sharp IoT.Make Bootcamp,” a program designed to help inventors accelerate their design, development and mass production processes.

Orphe, smart footwear (Photo: EE Times)
Orphe, smart footwear (Photo: EE Times)

Tetsuji Kimura, senior manager of Sharp’s Open Innovation Center, told us that a Japanese startup called No New Folk Studio (which designed Orphe, smart footwear for artists and performers) was one of the early participants in Sharp’s Bootcamp.

Subsequently, the startup is now working with Sharp. Kimura’s team helps them with electronics design and product reliability.

Tetsuji Kimura
Tetsuji Kimura

Startups are good at making hundreds of products for initial crowd-funding. But when they have to scale up to build tens of thousands of products, Kimura said a whole new approach is necessary to ensure manufacturability and quality.

“Foxconn, as a leader in the ODM business, already harbored the idea of connecting with startups,” Kimura said. This was a breath of fresh air to Sharp, whose primary focus had always been “vertical integration.” Kimura sees a great opportunity for his team to learn about “wearables” by working with No New Folk Studio.

Orphe designed for artists and performers (Photo: No New Folk Studio)
Orphe designed for artists and performers (Photo: No New Folk Studio)

Under the Taiwanese ownership, Sharp's LCD research engineers aren't just surviving but having a second life. But their focus is no longer on 8K.

Daylighting film
The underlying technology of Sharp’s daylighting film for windows is based on optical film used for LCD backlighting, explained Tsuyoshi Kamada, general manager, Sharp’s Materials & Energy Technology Labs. Sharp has developed expertise in optical control technology — critical to  the film that brings in light most efficiently.

Sharp's daylighting film redirects sunlight from windows deeper into a room and onto ceilings. (Photo: EE Times)
Sharp's daylighting film redirects sunlight from windows deeper into a room and onto ceilings. (Photo: EE Times)

The idea of enhancing light is similar, with one huge difference, said Kamada. While LCD backlighting is a fixed source, the sun moves. “It took us a lot of calculation to nail the most efficient optical film for the sun,” Kamada said. 

Kamada acknowledged that Sharp has been developing optical film since 2013, with the explicit goal of proceeding with “post-LCD” projects. Although it has taken some time, post-LCD products are turning into Sharp's new business. The new films are already installed in a few commercial buildings, according to Kamada. Volume, however, remains small, he said.

Tsuyoshi Kamada demonstrates Sharp's daylighting film (Photo: EE Times)
Tsuyoshi Kamada demonstrates Sharp's daylighting film (Photo: EE Times)

But the possibilities are already evident. When used in a room with a depth of nine meters, Kamada said, “We have already proven that our optical films designed for windows can reduce lighting energy by more than 40 percent per year.”

— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times Circle me on Google+