(Bloomberg) — TDK Corp. sees a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic in a boost to demand for its batteries and sensors in electronic gadgets and a long-term push toward greater use of tech in the auto industry.
Once ubiquitous across cassette tapes and compact discs, the Japanese household name now provides batteries for one in three phones globally. Though TDK has seen revenue fall as U.S.-China trade tensions weighed on auto sales, the outbreak should quicken digitization across the home and industry and propel imminent demand for batteries in personal devices and long-term demand for sensors in connected cars, Chief Executive Officer Shigenao Ishiguro said in an interview.
“Digital transformation is a huge opportunity for us and I have no doubt that the coronavirus will push the world to go that direction at a faster pace,” Ishiguro said.
The CEO, who witnessed first-hand how the Thai floods of 2011 disrupted supply chains and quickened a transition from hard disk drives to solid-state storage, sees in the coronavirus outbreak a similar catalyst for change.
TDK over the past decade and a half has reinvented itself as a purveyor of batteries for smartphones, but the global car market slump hurt its overall business. The company is coming off its first revenue decline since 2012, even though it remains a leader in compact power cells. TDK’s lithium-ion cells earned 600 billion yen ($5.6 billion) in the fiscal year ended March, having powered close to a quarter of all laptops, 43% of game console hardware and more than half of all tablets sold in 2019, according to Techno Systems Research. Demand for these device categories surged around the virus outbreak, according to IDC market researchers.
For TDK’s battery division, “business opportunity can be found around every corner of the tech industry in a world with the coronavirus and 5G,” said Morningstar Research analyst Kazunori Ito. Growing product categories include drones, wireless earphones and smartphones with fifth-generation networking — all of which require small-sized batteries that can provide reliable power for many hours. TDK’s Hong Kong-based subsidiary Amperex Technology Ltd. is widely recognized for having a technological lead on this front, said Ito, calling it “the absolute battery king.”
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But TDK faces much more skepticism with the other wing of its business: sensors. The company offers magnetic sensors to aid stabilization of mobile cameras and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) sensors used in noise-canceling headphones. Neither has managed to stand out in a fiercely competitive components market, said Ace Research Institute analyst Hideki Yasuda.
Acknowledging the charge, Ishiguro said his most urgent task now is to bring that business up to speed before looking at additional M&A deals.
“I moved things around to beef up our sensor business, and my top priority is to generate convincing returns from it,” he said. Ishiguro, who took the top job in 2016, oversaw the acquisition of U.S.-based MEMS specialist InvenSense Inc. the year after and is keen to prove that division’s worth.
The auto industry presents another potent opportunity, as TDK’s magnetic sensors can be used at multiple spots around a car, from power-steering to windshield wipers. The Tokyo-based company’s technology is “already in a lot of car pipelines, including ones awaiting approval and ones waiting for mass production,” Ishiguro said. “In a not so distant future, our sensors will be the de facto standard in the car industry.”
TDK in May forecast a 14% drop in its production for the auto market this fiscal year, as the industry battles the effects of Covid-19 and lingering trade tensions. But Ishiguro’s belief, shared by SMBC Nikko Securities analyst Hiroharu Watanabe, is that the upheaval is more likely to hasten automakers’ transition to smart electric vehicles and thus expand the market for component makers.
“Tesla has adopted an upgradeable computer platform for its Model 3, which we can almost call a smartphone in terms of the semiconductor chips it equips,” Watanabe said. Daimler AG last week announced it will use Nvidia Corp.’s similar smart car technology in all its vehicles starting with 2024 models.
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