In an exclusive interview, we catch up with Rohm Electronics president, Satoshi Sawamura, on the latest projects the company has been developing.
Rohm's activities range from resistors through discrete devices and up to ICs, MEMS and microcontrollers but it has always sought to own almost every aspect of manufacturing from buying-in raw chemicals and pulling ingots to make wafers. But with such a broad product portfolio and technologies becoming ever-more diverse does Rohm have to start outsourcing some aspects of manufacturing?
"The policy remains unchanged; to make from end to end. Basically whatever the product, the policy is the same. It was for resistors in the beginning, it applies to discretes and it applies to MEMS. Our major focus is on analog ICs rather than digital so we are not chasing the leading edge. We are on 130nm on 12-inch wafers. We could go to 90nm We don't have to go further," said Satoshi Sawamura, president, Rohm Electronics, by way of translation provided by board member Masaki Sakai.
For the last financial year, ended March 31, 2016, the company's sales of about $3.3 billion broke down by technology thus. Roughly half were integrated circuits, including MEMS; a third in discrete diodes and transistors; 10% in module; mainly print-heads and 7% others including 4% resistors. It is also notable that by application sector about 40% of Rohm's sales are in automotive and industrial.
Figure 1: Chart shows Rohm sales by product type for year ending March 2016.
"We are making a global emphasis on automotive and industrial so Europe is important to us," said Sawamura indicating it as a contributing factor as to why Rohm values the biannual Electronica exhibition.
More specifically how is Rohm's MEMS strategy progressing, having bought New York state based Kionix Inc. in October 2009? "We provide gyroscopes and accelerometers, both standalone and combined," said Sawamura. "We use this experience to address automotive applications and in areas such as factory automation where MEMS can detect vibration." Rohm also has a 9-axis magnetometre, accelerometre and magnetic gyrometre, the KMX62G.
Rohm also makes numerous other types of sensors including Hall effect magnetic sensors, temperature sensors, piezoresistive pressure sensors and IR, UV ambient light and other optical sensors. "We do have photosensing and we look at ways to combine these with MEMS. Also [we look] at making platforms that combine MEMS, wireless and software," said Sawamura.
Sawamura added that the company is also working on a new generation of actuators and a transition from thermal print heads to piezoelectric MEMS print heads but that the timing of such a transition has not been fixed. "It [the technology] could be used but we are just at the beginning. Technology is one thing, but it has to bring value."
Figure 2: Chart shows Rohm sales by application sector for year ending March 2016.
Right now, seven years on from the acquisition of Kionix, MEMS make up about 2% of Rohm's sales but it is increasing fast. It also remains true that for now those sales are largely dependent on the smartphone market but automotive and industrial design wins will come, he said. Overall Sawamura provided an impression of Rohm of being like many Japanese companies: patient and painstaking.
But Rohm is prepared to move early and decisively in technologies in which it has faith. As well as acquiring MEMS maker Kionix in 2009 Rohm acquired SiCrystal (Nuremberg, Germany) a monocrystal silicon carbide wafer manufacturer again supporting the idea of vertical integration. In fact the company was predominantly a holder of intellectual property and Rohm invested in a fully automated factory. SiCrystal operates as a subsidiary and sells externally as well as supplying wafers internally.
In essence silicon carbide enables higher-speed switching with lower on-resistance than silicon and the result is usually resulting in reduced losses, reduced heating and smaller size and lower weight. Rohm has been a pioneer of SiC development and was the first company to mass produce SiC MOSFETs in 2010. Rohm already supplies Schottky Barrier Diodes (SBDs) in SiC and SiC-powered MOSFETs and modules. Indeed at the Electronica show Rohm launched its third generation of SiC devices at up to 1,200V and it has second-generation SiC MOSFETs that operate at 1,700V.
Nonetheless Sawamura said: "The silicon-carbide market has not started yet. Perhaps it will in 2020. This is one of the reasons Rohm enjoys sponsoring the Venturi Formula-E racing team which is tremendous place to trial novel technologies. The only commercial automotive company to make use of SiC is Tesla," according to Christian Andre, president of Rohm Semiconductor and chairman of SiCrystal.
Figure 3: Rohm sponsors the Venturi team's silicon carbide tech needs on the Formula E race track.
"Today the main market for silicon-carbide is industrial converters for solar cells, drivers for auxiliary drives," said Sawamura. "And mainly diodes but we are seeing the introduction of transistor drives.
With the emphasis on automotive and industrial Rohm is also investing in its European Development Center in Willich, Germany run by Michael Davis. "We are now under construction with a power laboratory for SiC, IGBTs and MOSFET designs. It is a place to build systems and develop ICs. To offer solutions for customers. Customers' engineers can work in the lab." However Sawamura would not quantify the development in terms of a headcount. "It is just starting and it will ramp up depending on the market," he said.
Sawamura added that Rohm's range of expertise in analog and mixed-signal, in sensors, in power, in MEMS meant that it was well-placed to participate in the Internet of Things. The company can provide both wireless transceivers and low-power microcontrollers through its Lapis Semiconductor subsidiary.
So in this era of consolidation does Rohm have funds for more acquisitions? According to the company's latest financial results – interim results for the first six months of fiscal year ending March 31, 2017 – has about ¥280 billion (about $2.6 billion) in cash on hand.
"We are always looking for companies for us to acquire. It depends on their capability and IP. But we won't touch a totally different market," he concluded.