KYOTO -- Nidec has a good feeling about its future.
Tiny motors for hard drives used to propel the Japanese company's earnings, but sagging PC sales have squeezed demand. The manufacturer has decided to switch its focus to haptic technology, the wizardry that enables gadgets to provide physical feedback to users. When an Apple Watch pulses against your wrist? That's haptic technology at work.
At a Wednesday press briefing in Tokyo to announce the company's earnings for the April-June quarter, Nidec Chairman and President Shigenobu Nagamori said, "We will mass-produce [haptic devices] starting now."
Though the Kyoto-based company has been largely silent about its activities so far in this segment, its haptic devices are thought to feature in the Apple Watch, released in April to much fanfare.
The timepiece pulses against the wrist to alert users to incoming email messages and other notifications. The vibration settings can be adjusted according to the type of notification and the sender, so that the wearer can know, for example, who an incoming email message is from without even looking.
It is haptic technology that enables people to feel as though they are pushing a real button or strumming actual guitar strings when they touch their smartphone screens. And what makes the technology all the more impressive is that the sensations change according to the strength of the touch. The potential applications go far beyond what is possible with conventional vibration motors used in mobile phones.
Group companies Nidec Copal and Nidec Seimitsu have been turning out haptic devices since last year, but the parent wants to up the ante by launching full production overseas as well. "Demand for our hard drives has been sluggish, so we will transform those plants (into bases for making haptic devices)," Nagamori said.
The timing is probably no accident. Industry observers believe Nidec's haptic devices will likely be used in the new series of iPhones widely expected to be released this autumn.
For years, small precision motors for hard drives have been Nidec's bread and butter. But Nagamori is saying haptics are the company's "next big thing." The appeal of this technology, he said, is its versatility.
For example, dashboard controls in automobiles could use the technology so that drivers could adjust, say, the air conditioning based on physical feedback to their fingertips rather than having to take their eyes off the road.
Motion-sensing games are another promising area. "The market will grow to be worth more than 1 trillion yen ($8 billion)," said Nagamori. Nidec is already talking with carmakers and game companies.
One day, haptics may even enable long-distance surgeries in which remote-controlled robots transmit realistic sensations to the hands of the doctors.
A dash of luck
Business savvy, and a little luck, have brought Nidec to this point. Nagamori pushed ahead with mergers and acquisitions in the automotive and consumer electronics fields not because he thought haptics were going to take off, but because he knew sliding PCs sales would dent the market for hard drive motors. As for the growth of haptics, he says he did not expect "a market like this would emerge."
He says the microfabrication and precision press technologies of Nidec group companies have been conducive to developing haptic devices. "That's why we have been able to enter the field so quickly," Nagamori said.
The company holds the largest share of the global market for smartphone vibration devices, but unit prices are only in the tens of yen. In contrast, unit prices for haptic devices are typically in the hundreds of yen. The profit-boosting potential is no doubt tantalizing to Nagamori.
Nidec aims to double its annual sales to 2 trillion yen by 2020 by focusing on automotive-use haptic devices. "We hope to turn haptic devices into a business worth hundreds of billions of yen by 2020," said Nagamori.