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Japanese maker's niche tech yields Nobel glory, fat profits

Hamamatsu Photonics produces 20-inch photomultiplier tubes for China at its Toyooka factory in Shizuoka Prefecture.

TOKYO -- Splashing out on R&D has brought Japan's Hamamatsu Photonics both prestige and profit. In 2015, for the third time, the company's technology helped scientists win a Nobel Prize in Physics. Its operating profit on sales, meanwhile, is a hefty 20%.

     At its Toyooka factory in Shizuoka Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, Hamamatsu Photonics produces photomultiplier tubes, or PMTs, a device that can detect weak light emissions, convert them to electrons and amplify them for observation. The company currently controls 90% of the global PMT market.

     The factory is the company's main PMT production base. In a facility completed there last May for some 6.5 billion yen ($60 million), engineers are busy churning out 20-inch PMTs, the largest such devices in the world. Many of these PMTs will be shipped to emerging countries, where rapid advances in science and technology are fueling demand for the tools needed to carry out cutting-edge experiments. Previously, such equipment was sold almost exclusively to buyers in developed countries.

     Hamamatsu Photonics plans to export 16,500 PMTs to China for a large-scale experiment using elementary particles. It is also preparing to ship 10,000 units to Russia for an experiment in Lake Baikal. "Orders from researchers around the world engaged in advanced studies come to between 30 billion and 40 billion yen," said Junichi Takeuchi, the senior managing director who oversees the operation.

     The company supplied 13,000 20-inch PMTs to the Super-Kamiokande particle observation facility in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan. This technology provided the basis for the 2015 Nobel Prize-winning study by Takaaki Kajita, director of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo. With the facility's previous incarnation, the Kamiokande, Masatoshi Koshiba won a Nobel Prize in 2002.

Single-minded focus

New uses are being found for photoelectric conversion technology. With the help of the Japanese government, Hamamatsu Photonics is developing a special image pickup tube for cameras to inspect the inside of nuclear reactors at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Hamamatsu Photonics is using technology from its PMTs to develop tubes that can withstand high levels of radiation, as the cameras will be used to check nuclear debris remaining inside the reactors, which were severely damaged by explosions caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The company hopes to complete development of the tubes by next March.

Hamamatsu Photonics is working on micro photomultiplier tubes.

     Hamamatsu Photonics is also speeding up efforts to develop micro PMTs that will be about one-seventh the volume of today's smallest devices. The micro PMT, the company hopes, will be used for medical examinations and will require just a few drops of blood. Prototypes are now being evaluated by clients.

     Hamamatsu Photonics started out making phototubes that convert light to electrons and developed PMTs in 1959. Working single-mindedly to improve its photoelectric conversion technology enabled the company to overtake such big names as RCA of U.S., EMI Electronics of U.K. and Toshiba. "No one can beat us in photoelectric conversion," President Akira Hiruma said.

     There are two reasons for his confidence. One is the high quality of the company's products, underpinned by its engineers' creativity. The other is its advantage in a niche market. Hamamatsu Photonics has concentrated its resources in areas it does best and stayed away from mass-production markets. It avoids price competition as much as possible to maintain high profit margins, and spends about 10% of its group sales on research and development constantly.



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