Japan Hits the Hard Reset Button on IoT Growth

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By Karen Lightman, MEMS & Sensors Industry Group

I have been going to Japan on a somewhat regular basis since 2009. I first started going while the world was reeling from the economic realignment of the late 2000s. And I visited both before and after the devastating tsunami/earthquake/nuclear disaster of 2011. In all honesty, I sensed a feeling of depression among the Japanese regarding the country’s economic future, particularly their perception of their country’s future in semiconductors and MEMS.

Wow — has Japan changed. I felt I was visiting a new land on my most recent trip to Tokyo in May 2016 as an invited speaker at MEMS Engineer Forum (MEF). I experienced a vibrancy and energy and confidence that I’d never seen before. There was talk of a startup community, and investors identified MEMS as a great opportunity for the future. The number of women speaking as well as those in the audience was truly impressive. All of these things are part of the “new Japan” that I witnessed.

MEF also welcomed the still-active stalwarts who helped build the MEMS industry in Japan and the rest of the world. They include the chairs of the MEF: Professor Hiroki Kuwano, Professor Masayoshi Esashi, Mr. Susumu Kaminaga, and Professor Naoto Kobayashi. Of these four pillars of MEMS in Japan, Professor Esashi is one of the “grandfathers” of MEMS. Professor Esashi received the IEEE Andrew S. Grove Award in 2015, and most recently the IEEE Jun-ichi Nishizawa Medal in 2016. Under the management of Susumu Kaminaga, Surface Technology Systems (STS) pioneered the development and commercialization of Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE) technology based on the Bosch Process. DRIE technology has enabled the MEMS world to expand rapidly in the last decades in products such as the iPhone and other consumer devices, airbags, and much more.

Masayoshi Esashi and Karen Lightman during a recent trip to Japan.

Masayoshi Esashi and Karen Lightman during a recent trip to Japan.

While the primary theme of MEF 2016 was “Smart Cities,” there were several sub-themes that echoed throughout my two days at the conference. It was clear that the deadly earthquake in 2011, along with Japan’s aging population (and the need for robotic assistance) as well as the country’s high debt, have created opportunities for collaboration between the MEMS industry and academia. Through tragedy and struggle, Japan has been able to hit the “hard reset button” and change the way they were doing business for decades (if not centuries). The Japanese have come together to provide the pipeline for innovation to develop technology from research and development in order to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT), which includes smart cities.

At MEF, there were presentations from the full supply chain of MEMS, from materials and equipment suppliers to device manufacturers, integrators and end users — as well as research and development, and academia. A little over one-third of the talks were from non-Japanese companies/institutes, including Yole Développement; University of California, Irvine; Fraunhofer ENAS; Bosch; CEA-Leti; VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland; InvenSense; National Tsing Hua University; and the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology.

A wide range of Japanese speakers from multi-billion corporations such as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), Hitachi, DENSO, and Toyota, as well as small companies such as Yaguchi Electric also participated. And I was seriously impressed by the Development Bank of Japan’s presentation.

Many MEF speakers discussed the biggest trends in IoT including autonomous vehicles, robotics drones, and healthcare. The maturation and commercialization of artificial intelligence (AI) in many applications, including the use of AI for medical diagnosis and treatment, was especially exciting.

Word of the new startup community in Japan and as well as calls by Dr. Yang Ishigaki of Yaguchi Electric for an “Oasis” — an open, free commons where researchers can connect through open source — created a ton of buzz among attendees. Mr. Yaguchi shared an example of his crowdsourced chemical sensor and a “cool cooler” that, again, was crowdsourced. I was equally thrilled by the videos and case studies that Dr. Takahiro Nakayama from Toyota presented on Human Support Robots (HSR) that assist people in daily life. I’ve heard that by 2025 many of us will have a robot in the room, and clearly Toyota wants to be a leader in this field.

Often when we hear about IoT, it’s described as though it’s some far off place, an Emerald City that doesn’t really exist. Through my first-hand experience in Japan at MEF focused on the issue of smart cities, it’s clear to me that the IoT is real and that the Japanese are amply prepared for it and are executing on it today. With the Japanese ramping their activity in MEMS and sensors, we will get that much closer to the goal of a Trillion Sensors by 2020.

I am thrilled for the Japanese and look forward to my next opportunity to visit Japan and bear witness to their transformation. For a look at the presentation I gave at MEF, download it (free)!

[image via Karen Lightman]