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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’re reminded of just how sharply the balance of power in consumer electronics manufacturing has shifted to China. In a New York Times story from February 2, Sharp Corporation – a Japanese colossus in everything from LCD displays to office products and personal gadgets – let it be known that they are seriously considering a sale to Hon Hai Precision Industries of Taiwan.

You may not recognize the name Hon Hai, but you may know one of their subsidiaries: Foxconn, the manufacturer of just about everything with an Apple logo on it (IPhones, iPads, MacBooks, Apple TV, etc.) And Hon Hai is no stranger to Sharp, having bought nearly 50% of the latter’s Gen 10 LCD fab capacity in Sakai, Japan a few years back.

Why, and how? Sharp did not fare well during the global recession. Sakai, the world’s largest LCD fab, opened in 2008 as the world economy was tanking, affecting demand for all things electronic – especially liquid-crystal displays. Because Hon Hai (er, Foxconn) uses VA-type glass in its products, chairman Terry Gou approached the company with a deal it couldn’t refuse – except that Sharp got back just 20 cents on the dollar for its $4B investment in Sakai.

Several years of brutal red ink for Sharp brought the company to where it is today. Having borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from Japanese banks to stay afloat as its worldwide TV business evaporated (and having sold small minority shares to Qualcomm and Samsung along the way to raise additional cash), Sharp’s day of reckoning has arrived.

Those were the days, my friend...we thought they'd never end...

Those were the days, my friend…we thought they’d never end…

The company, which ten years ago had a 21% worldwide market share in LCD TV shipments, sold its North American TV business to Hisense last year, along with an assembly plant in Mexico. The Sharp name will still be found on LCD TVs made by Hisense in China and southeast Asia, but largely as a bargain brand.

Not surprisingly, Japanese banks are reluctant to throw more good money after bad. According to the story, Sharp has seen $10B in losses over the past five years, reporting a net loss of $200M for the most recent quarter. There is a home-grown suitor – the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), a government-backed organization that is trying to keep some semblance of display R&D and manufacturing in Japan.

Trouble is; Hon Hai’s offer of $5B is twice as much as INCJ is willing to put on the table. INCJ, though, has said they will push to line up more financing from Japanese banks. But given the staggering losses incurred by Sharp, Panasonic, and Sony a few years ago, combined with Toshiba’s “cooked books” and exit from the television market and similar departures by Mitsubishi and Hitachi, means the old ways of doing business in Tokyo are probably over for good.

And things aren’t all rosy for Hon Hai, either. Although they are a strong player in consumer electronics – perhaps the dominant player in manufacturing – their profit margins have been shrinking in recent years. The company has branched into electric cars and robotics to diversify, but acquiring Sharp could prove to be a bit too much to swallow.

This is the next

This is the next “gold rush” in display applications.

Gou would love to have that Gen 10 plant running in China, and if he’s as savvy as I suspect, he can already see the enormous market opening up for transportation displays – cars, buses, trains, planes, ships, trucks, you name it – around the world. These displays are small to mid-size, resulting in more lower-cost cuts from larger motherglass and higher yields (and probably higher sales numbers than TVs and computer monitors).

This trend became obvious a few years ago at CES and this year, it went off the charts. Consider the market for automobiles alone – virtual dashboards, center consoles, GPs, rear-seat TVs – and you can see the potential to make billions of dollars. But you’ve gotta have enough reasonably-priced “glass” to do it.

Sharp’s CEO Kozo Takahashi said the company would take until the beginning of March to make its decision. Should the board opt to take Gou’s offer, that decision could turn out to be a tipping point for other Japanese manufacturers who are struggling to see profits in display-related manufacturing and sales.

In any case, this should convince you that the landscape for consumer electronics really is changing, and changing in a BIG way. You’ll see increasing numbers of TCL and Hisense TVs in big box stores this year, competing with the “Big 3” – Samsung, LG, and Sony. You’ll also see more Chinese-branded mobile phones from carriers, along with personal electronics like smart watches.

Like Bob Dylan sang so many years ago, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…”

Posted by Pete Putman, February 12, 2016 2:04 PM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.