Why Nisshinbo Micro Devices is Expanding ASIC/ASSP Business in Europe

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Nisshinbo Micro Devices Inc. came into being through the integration of New Japan Radio Co. Ltd. and RICOH ELECTRONIC DEVICES CO. LTD. in 2022. In the fiscal year ended March 31, 2022, the company recorded net sales of around ¥85 billion, making it a mid-sized semiconductor manufacturer that would by no means be considered large at a global level.

Nevertheless, since entering the European automotive market in 2016, the company has steadily expanded the scale of its business. Its automotive ASIC/ASSP products have been adopted by one European auto manufacturer and seven Tier-1 suppliers, and they are already delivering product. The company continues to invest and is prepared to further expand its business in North America, mirroring its successful growth in Europe. This is evident from the establishment of the Automotive ASSP Project Team in January 2024 as an organization dedicated to ASIC/ASSP products for this particular market.

Demand in the automotive semiconductor market is growing as a result of the electronification and electrification of vehicles. This has become an attractive market even for major semiconductor manufacturers, and competition is becoming increasingly intense. With that in mind, how is it that mid-sized Japanese semiconductor manufacturer Nisshinbo Micro Devices has been able to enter the European automotive market and grow its business in such a short time?

We talked with the Project Leader for Europe and America/General Manager for the Automotive ASSP Project Team, Yoshi Takahashi, and Manager Shigeki Kajitani to find out more.

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Yoshi Takahashi, the Project Leader for Europe and America/General Manager for Automotive ASSP Project Team (left) and Manager Shigeki Kajitani

Entered European automotive market in 2016, and steady expansion of business with overseas customers

  • Tell us a little about Nisshinbo Micro Devices’ automotive semiconductor business.

Takahashi: New Japan Radio and Ricoh Electronic Devices, which were the precursors to Nisshinbo Micro Devices, had each been supplying analog semiconductors mainly to Japanese auto manufacturers and so-called Tier-1 suppliers, which are manufacturers of automotive electronics since the electronification of vehicles began in the 1980s and 1990s. Particularly from 2011 onwards, when demand for semiconductors for the automotive market rose following the sharp increase in electrification and the adoption of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), the business expanded rapidly. At about that time, we also expanded the area of our business to include Europe and Asian countries such as China and South Korea. As a result, net sales to the automotive market in 2023 were more than nine times higher than they were in 2011 and over 30% of net sales for the Company as a whole. Automotive semiconductors are now one of Nisshinbo Micro Devices’ mainstay businesses.

Yoshi Takahashi
  • What is the situation with the automotive semiconductor business in the European market?

Takahashi: We started developing the business in earnest sometime around 2018. We stationed Field Application Engineers (FAE) specializing in automotive semiconductors at our office in Germany, and started moving forward with proposal activities. We had absolutely no track record in the European market up to that point so we were starting from scratch, but now we supply op-amps and other analog semiconductors, power ICs, and ASIC/ASSP products not only to automotive manufacturers but also to a number of automotive component manufacturers, including mega Tier-1 companies.

  • Multiple global automotive semiconductor manufacturers have a presence in Europe, and it is not an easy market to enter for a Japanese semiconductor supplier. What is your analysis of why you were able to achieve this?

Takahashi: I think there are a number of reasons. First, I would point to our 40-year track record in the Japanese automotive market. As a semiconductor manufacturer, it is Tier-1 companies that are the direct recipients of deliveries of our product. That notwithstanding, due to our long history of accomplishments in this market we had established an environment in which we were able to engage in dialogue for more than 15 years with global Japanese auto manufacturers to develop semiconductor products. We asked auto manufacturers directly about their wishes for semiconductors designed to enhance safety and reliability, and incorporated those requirements into our products. Without this track record, we probably would not have been able to enter the European market.

The technical and product capabilities that we developed during the course of our dealings with Japanese auto manufacturers and Tier-1 companies was another factor.

Addressing issues in the auto market through broad-based core technology and wide-ranging engineering ability

  • Tell us about the technological and product strengths of Nisshinbo Micro Devices.

Kajitani: Broadly speaking, Nisshinbo Micro Devices has two main products. These are the signal-type analog ICs and mixed signal ICs, such as op-amps and comparators, and the power ICs or power management ICs, such as LDO regulators and DC/DC converters. We have achieved a certain level of market share, being ranked fifth1 globally in op-amps and fourth in LDO regulators.

Shigeki Kajitani

We have been developing both signal- and power-related products for use in automotive applications for the past forty years to meet the needs of the auto market. Over the past few years, we have focused on the growing demand for safety that has arisen as a result of ADAS and electrification, and have developed the concept of “noise-resistant automotive semiconductors,” which has become one of our strengths.

On the signal side, noise-reduction circuits using op-amps, and low-noise amps (LNA) using GaAs (Gallium Arsenide) products with superior radio-frequency (RF) characteristics are being adopted for vehicle cameras and a variety of other sensing systems, car information systems, and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) equipment.

In terms of power products, we have LDO regulators and DC/DC converters to thoroughly eliminate the effects of noise when inserted into a noise reduction circuit. These are used in ADAS and powertrain applications for highly reliable power supplies that ensure continued supply of power under any conditions.

Our ability as engineers to combine op-amps, comparators, LDO regulators and other individual technologies with our core technology to create ASICs and ASSPs that address the needs of the auto market and our customers is another strength of Nisshinbo Micro Devices. It is precisely because of these engineering capabilities that we were able to achieve entry into the European market.

Nisshinbo Micro Devices’ ASIC/ASSP business (Source: Nisshinbo Micro Devices)
  • What is it about Nisshinbo Micro Devices’ engineering that is distinctive?

Takahashi: Not only does our core technology cover a wide area in the analog/mixed signal domain but we also have a production and supply structure that covers everything from plan and design, through development, to mass production and quality assurance.

Our production sites are compliant with the IATF 16949 international standard for quality management in the automotive industry, as well as the VDA 6.3 that is the standard for the German Association of the Automotive Industry. Very few GaAs front end facilities, which is essential for Connected Cars, are compliant with IATF 16949 and VDA 6.3 on a global level, so we have unique strengths even in our production system.

It is precisely because we have this integrated production and supply system that we are able to meet the needs of customers and markets by providing comprehensive solutions that leverage not only circuit design but also package, production, and other technologies.

The background to this is that we are specialists in analog and mixed signal products, which enables us to demonstrate our engineering capabilities despite not being a large organization by any means.

It is often the case with large manufacturers that if they cannot expect a certain level of demand they will not engage in the development of ASICs or ASSPs for profitability or other reasons. Recently in particular, there has been a pronounced trend towards large semiconductor manufacturers devoting development resources to computing devices, and there are fewer manufacturers capable of dealing with analog-rich ASIC/ASSP products.

The fact that Nisshinbo Micro Devices is able to handle analog-rich ASIC/ASSP products that would not be feasible for larger manufacturers, for reasons of mass-production scale and profitability, is likely another reason that customers are increasingly using our products.

A system that enables a rapid response to automotive market needs

  • In January 2024 you launched the Automotive ASSP Project Team. How did this come about?

Takahashi: With the number of manufacturers that can provide analog-rich automotive ASIC/ASSPs declining, customers have increasingly high expectations of Nisshinbo Micro Devices. The objective of the Automotive ASSP Project Team is to further reduce the time required to understand the issues faced by customers and to provide an ASIC/ASSP-based solution.

The speed of development in the automotive industry has increased significantly, and in some cases we are required to provide development feasibility within a month after our first discussion.

Previously the divisions in charge of the respective products and core technologies would each engage separately in discussions with customers and development of ASICs or ASSPs, but development frequently straddles multiple  divisions, which has sometimes resulted in delays. To address this we established the Automotive ASSP Project Team to take sole responsibility for dialogue with customers. Team members have an exhaustive knowledge of technical ASIC/ASSP matters, and are capable of making prompt judgments on the best way to resolve issues faced by customers and of communicating that without delay.

  • One might expect that delegating all business discussions related to ASIC/ASSP products to the Automotive ASSP Project Team would lead to a progressively better understanding of the automotive market, and the development of even better ASIC/ASSP products.

Takahashi: Exactly. We have FAEs who understand the automotive market stationed not only in Japan but also in our European and Asian offices. We want to roll out products that incorporate market needs before anybody else, which is why we are engaging in even more frequent dialogue with customers.

Nisshinbo Micro Devices is part of the Nisshinbo Holdings group, which was founded more than one hundred years ago and which is involved in a wide range of businesses related to the automotive industry. This too is something we will take advantage of in the ASIC/ASSP business.

Nisshinbo Holdings Business Matrix (Source: Nisshinbo Micro Devices)

Kajitani: The Nisshinbo group includes not only the textile businesses in which it has been engaged since it was founded but also an operating company that is involved in the automotive brake business as a Tier-1 supplier. Its radio and communications equipment, precision machinery, and chemical products businesses also operate in the automotive market. We can further deepen our understanding of the automotive market through cooperation with these other businesses in the Nisshinbo group. Going forward we will also launch some highly original solutions. The group includes D-CLUE Technologies, which is involved in digital semiconductors, and a coil/inductor manufacturer. By collaborating with such group companies, we would like to provide system solutions that include electronic components and semiconductors other than analog/mixed-signal ICs.

Further refining core technologies and engineering capabilities for growth

  • What are your objectives for the ASIC/ASSP business going forward?

Takahashi: Up to this point we have grown the number of ASIC/ASSP design wins in signal- and power-related ADAS applications. Going forward, we expect increasing acceptance in powertrain applications. We have unique core technology that can directly measure voltages of more than 1000 volts, allowing us to offer highly reliable ASIC/ASSP for powertrain applications.

We will continue to refine core analog/mixed-signal technologies aside from high-voltage technology, while also dealing sincerely with issues and requests from other parts of the automotive market in addition to ADAS and powertrain. This will lead us to fulfill our objective of providing solutions as one of a small number of agile and specialized manufacturers of analog/mixed-signal semiconductors.

1Results of 2022 sales value survey by Marketing Eye

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