TEP Story Archives: Changing the Future of Industry with the Most Precise Inkjet Technology in the World

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Dr. Kazuhiro Murata
CEO of SIJTechnology, Inc./TEP Member

Creating electronic devices on a desktop

When we think about a factory that makes cutting-edge electronic devices, we usually picture a large manufacturing plant. However, in the near future inkjet technology may make it possible to miniaturize such factories to a size that fits on a desktop.

Inkjet technology enables individual drops of ink to be deposited to draw small "dots" that make up images or text. Thanks to technical innovations, this inkjet technology is starting to be used in a wide range of industries.

Now various nanomaterial pastes such as metal particles, functional materials, and adhesives, can be used as "ink" to be applied, added, or attached to electronic components. Using this technology to manufacture LCD displays, touch panels, and electronic devices such as LEDs is called "printed electronics," and there has been a global race to develop this technology in recent years.

Japan has the best inkjet technology in the world, and Mr. Kazuhiro Murata, CEO of SIJTechnology, Inc. has developed super-fine inkjet technology. This technology miniaturizes the size of the ejected ink droplets to less than 1/1000 the size of a home inkjet printer, which enables high-precision processing. Another major feature of super-fine inkjet technology is the ability to use high viscosity ink.

Being able to deposit a wide range of materials in the required position with pinpoint accuracy dramatically expands the applications of inkjet technology. This is not limited to the electronics industry. For example, proteins can be used as "ink" for research in the biotech industry, such as the development of new drugs and biosensors. It is truly a technology that will open up the future. Dr. Murata invented this technology at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and founded SIJTechnology in 2005 in order to develop and sell inkjet processing equipment.

An invention that challenges the accepted practices of industry

One of the benefits of using inkjet technology to perform processing is dramatically reducing manufacturing costs. Currently, most electronic circuits are created using photolithography, a method that combines exposure technology with etching technology. This method requires a large clean room and large and expensive vacuum equipment. Furthermore, this method consumes a large amount of energy and resources, and 90% or more of the materials are wasted just to produce a tiny amount of circuits.

With inkjet technology, metal can be directly deposited in the required location, which eliminates the trouble and waste of conventional photolithography. Since electronic components use valuable metals such as gold and silver, this conservation of resources produces great value. Simplifying the manufacturing process also increases the speed of product development.

In addition to equipment, SIJTechnology also develops ink and process technology, including their recently released ink for local plating. Since this plating process uses only a small amount of metal, the metal required for the electrical connections we see in our daily life, for example, can be reduced to a fraction of what is normally used. Furthermore, since the plating process can be performed at a low temperature, metal plating can be applied to resin that is soft and heat-sensitive, such as the PET used in plastic bottles, which enables the manufacturing of cutting-edge devices such as digital paper.

Things that could not be made with "printing" will now become possible. In 2002, this technology was announced at the International Nanotechnology Exhibition & Conference, which is the largest nanotechnology exhibition in the world and received the first Nano-Tech Award on Nano Fabrication Technology as a revolutionary technology that will change the future of industry. It later received many other awards such as the Nippon Keidanren Chairman's Award of the "Conference for the Promotion of Collaboration among Industry, Academia and Government and “Excellence Award” at the "Small and Medium Enterprise New Technology/Product Award."

Team play management is the secret to becoming profitable

Although this super-fine inkjet technology received a lot of attention, because it was such a cutting-edge technology, the company still needed to stimulate demand by proposing specific utilization methods for industry. Of course, it takes time for business results to bear fruit. Despite this, SIJTechnology has surprisingly been profitable since the early days of its foundation.

Dr. Murata says the secret to this was team play management. Chairman of SIJ Technology, Mr. Kazuyuki Masuda, was indispensable as a team play partner. Mr. Masuda has experience in management at several venture companies and is a management professional who is also an Executive Advisor at TX Entrepreneur Partners. He met Dr. Murata when he was working as an entrepreneurial advisor at AIST and joined SIJTechnology from its foundation. Since then, Dr. Murata’s technical skills and Mr. Masuda’s management skills have worked in tandem to manage the company.

Dr. Murata likens this to the relationship between global company HONDA's Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa. "There is no way our company could have achieved early profitability without Mr. Masuda. Although he scolds me sometimes, I learn about ways of reducing costs that I would have never thought of as a researcher," he says with a laugh. By entrusting management of the company to Mr. Masuda, he can work on further improving the technical ability of SIJTechnology while concurrently working as a researcher at AIST.

Dr. Murata asserts that entrepreneurialism is not all about seeking high risk/high returns. In order to give promising new technologies back to society, a company needs a business foundation that allows the continuous supply of its products. One could say that the stable management of SIJTechnology represents a new form of venture company.

Changing the future of industry with the most precise inkjet technology in the world

Up until now, SIJTechnology has mainly sold inkjet processing equipment for R&D to the development departments of major companies and research institutes such as universities. This was to meet demand for research and development utilizing cutting-edge super-fine inkjet technology. Now that the company has a well-established track record, it has started to expand new business.

In January 2012, SIJTechnology launched a super-fine inkjet embedded head unit. This product features an ink discharge unit and a control unit, which are the core components of the technology. It enables companies such as manufacturers of electronic devices to flexibly embed a super-fine inkjet processing phase in their production line. Manufacturers of processing equipment can also embed this head unit in their existing products to develop and sell super-fine inkjet processing equipment as their own products. This sales method may be the key to ensuring that the super-fine inkjet technology of SIJTechnology becomes widely adopted by industry.

SIJTechnology also focuses on global business expansion, and their technology is certainly gaining attention. They have already received numerous inquiries from places as diverse as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, and South Korea. Hopes are high for this Japanese-born technology going global, and in October 2011 it was selected by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) as a promising export.

Super-fine inkjet technology eliminates waste in the printing process and contributes to the development of next-generation products with nanotechnology. Dr. Murata is confident that his business will succeed, stating that "It will definitely be adopted worldwide as a technology that saves resources and is environmentally friendly." In Japan, there are many examples of excellent technologies that fail to be commercialized. The success of SIJTechnology opening up new markets with revolutionary technology will surely become a role model for many researchers.

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