Achieving a prosperous society with a fusion of the real and the virtual
Everything around us is constantly changing, our daily way of life, businesses, and society itself. Just 10 to 20 years into the future seems so far off that we can't even begin to imagine what will happen.
However, we aim to further enrich our daily lives, business, and social activities by utilising digital data, and achieve a sustainable society by solving social issues such as climate change, low birth rates, and aging populations. It seems certain that developments will occur along these two directions. Looking ahead to the coming future, what kind of contribution can Murata make towards achieving a more prosperous and sustainable society? How does the company gain insight on technological and social trends based on its strengths and role in society, and how is it preparing for the future based on this knowledge? We spoke to Murata's president, Norio Nakajima, to find out the answers.
Predicting how the world will be 10 or 20 years from now
Nowadays, everybody carries around an information and communications device, such as a smartphone, and the equipment used in offices, factories, stores, and even in cars is connected to a network at all times. With that being the case today, what kind of society do you think will emerge in the future, 10 or 20 years from now?
As far as the electronics industry is concerned, predicting the near future 10 or 20 years from now is not such a difficult task. As information technology continues to develop, and the environment that surrounds our daily lives and society changes dramatically, we will likely see the emergence of a new society, called "Society 5.0." This Society 5.0 is a concept that is also advocated by the Japanese government, and it entails the combining of the real world – where we spend our daily lives, work, and engage with society – with the virtual world – where digital information is accumulated, processed, and from which value is created – in order to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable society. It can be thought of as a more concrete approach to digital transformation (DX). And, in the not-too-distant future, the people, places, and objects that exist in the real world will become integrated with the virtual world that exists in the cloud, thanks to IoT, which connects all manner of things to the Internet.
What specific steps are being taken toward the realisation of Society 5.0?
The first pioneering steps have already been taken. For example, in order to realise Society 5.0, a communications system that links together the real world and the virtual world is essential. This is already coming to fruition in the form of 5G networks, which were introduced to the market in 2020. This fifth-generation telecommunications technology was developed with connecting all manner of devices to the Internet in mind. Before long, 5G will progress to "5G Advanced," which has enhanced performance and functionality. In 2030, we expect to see the arrival of terahertz-wave communications, allowing for faster and higher-capacity communications at frequencies of 100GHz to 1THz, and the accompanying implementation of 6G networks will further expand what can be connected and how they can be used. The development of technologies and creation of standards that will help advance communications systems is already underway.
With the advent of advanced, high-speed communications systems, the real and virtual worlds will become ever closer together. Thus, events that occur in reality will be instantaneously applied to a digital model of reality, or "digital twin," and the new value created based on such a digital twin will be used to achieve a prosperous and sustainable society in reality through the communications infrastructure (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Conceptual diagram of the digital twin
It won't just be devices that connect to the virtual world. At some point in the not-too-distant future, people will also connect to the virtual world as a matter of course.
Following on from wearable devices such as smartwatches, we will likely witness the rise in popularity of "hearable devices," which can provide an uninterrupted stream of auditory information to people, even when they are engaged in an activity. Other technologies are also developing at a rapid pace, including "vital sensing," which can digitally sense people's everyday physical and mental well-being, as well as their activity, and augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), which enable people to easily utilise information from the virtual world. Through the utilisation of these technologies, a system would be able to automatically detect physical and mental disorders, and take action to soothe the mind and body in a way that appeals to the five senses.
Moreover, in recent years, the virtual world has been transformed into a place where we can live, work, and engage in social activities in new ways that are imbued with different value than the real world, thanks to a platform known as the "Metaverse."
What changes do you expect to see in the realm of mobility?
In the realm of mobility, nearly all petrol-powered vehicles will be replaced by electric vehicles (EVs), and many of the cars that will be launched into the market will be self-driving. Leading automotive companies around the world are already embarking on large-scale technological innovation and business reforms in line with CASE trends (connected, autonomous, sharing & service, electric), in what has been dubbed a "once-in-a-century revolution."
Accompanying these changes in mobility, we will also see things such as EV chargers appearing at people's homes and on street corners, a demand for in-car features that make the time spent in a car more worthwhile, and the emergence of transport and delivery services that allow the elderly to live without any inconvenience. In addition, the use of drones and flying cars is likely to rise in popularity, with the potential to completely change the way that transport and deliveries are conducted.
Looking ahead, how is Murata preparing for the near future?
The question remains of how to prepare so that we can realise the near future that we have predicted. I believe that Murata's true value will be revealed in answering that question.
Here at Murata, we are responsible for supplying the electronic components and modules that will make up the next generation of communications systems and human-machine interfaces that are indispensable in seamlessly connecting the real world and the virtual world. In other words, we need to establish a system in which we can focus on the coming future and anticipate the development of more advanced technologies, so that we can develop technologies and components to the required specifications and manufacture the amount required. It requires a high level of imagination and creative power to achieve this.
What kind of things do you need to imagine, and what kind of creations do you need to work on?
Let me give you an example. Terahertz-wave communications, which might potentially be introduced in 6G communications systems, have different characteristics from existing mobile phone signals, so the way that compatible devices are used might change dramatically. Generally, the higher the frequency of the radio waves to be used in wireless communications, the wider the bandwidth that can be secured, allowing for increased capacity. On the other hand, higher-frequency radio waves are straighter, and the communication distance is shorter. Radio waves used in 4G mobile communication networks made communications possible with a wide range of devices in a radius of several hundred meters to several kilometers around each base station (Fig. 2). However, the millimeter-wave communications adopted in 5G are limited to a range of 50 m even in good conditions, and the need to control the direction of the radio wave transmissions emerged. When it comes to terahertz-wave communications, the radius is reduced again to 10 m, which is equivalent to the communication distance of Bluetooth, the current leading short-range communications technology.
Fig. 2: Radio wave characteristics of telecommunications technologies by generation
If the communication distance becomes this short, it would become difficult to adopt terahertz-wave communications in traditional use cases, wherein a large number of devices are connected to each base station. Therefore, new use cases/system configurations will need to be created to utilise the characteristics of terahertz waves. For instance, one such use case/system configuration for terahertz waves could involve each individual device acting as a base station, supporting the communications network be relaying communications over multiple devices.
To stay ahead of the curve in developing and preparing communications modules for the 6G era, Murata is imagining these sorts of never-before-seen use cases/system configurations, participating in standards organisations to keep abreast of the latest information, and developing the technologies that will be required.
The current revolution happening in the realm of mobility in line with CASE trends means that we will see more advanced electrics and electronic circuits installed in cars than ever before. Moreover, it is not simply the case that a lot of parts will be required, but also this is an area in which preparation in anticipation is essential.
Technologies and components will need to meet new needs, such as multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs) that are compatible with the high voltages of electrical systems inside electric vehicles and are extremely reliable even in high-temperature environments, sensing devices that can detect people and objects within cars, and even V2X communications modules that can exchange information with other cars and the road infrastructure. Murata will develop appropriate products and technologies that support technological innovation, and supply them as they are needed.
A 3-layer portfolio that meets the demands of the times
Since Murata was founded in 1944, we have excelled at supplying electronic components with a single function, such as capacitors, inductors, filters, etc. However, in an age in which all manner of things are connected to the Internet, and the industries and fields making equipment with electrics and electronic circuits installed are rapidly increasing, there are more and more customers who are not able to use single-function electronic components. On the other hand, there are also customers who wish for components to be supplied as always, and their needs have diversified. Therefore, not only are we trying to advance technology, we are also trying to meet the demands of an era of diversification by organising our business model into a 3-layer portfolio (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: The 3-layer portfolio, Murata's concept for its growth strategy
The first layer in the 3-layer portfolio is our standard product business, consisting of product categories such as capacitors and inductors, which are Murata's core business. In these product categories, we continue to innovate and exceed limits - constantly striving for smaller, thinner, higher capacity, easier to use - while also preparing plants and equipment to ensure that we can fulfill our supply responsibilities.
The second layer is our specific application business, in which we develop and supply custom products in a timely manner to meet the requirements that specific customers have. Communications modules come under this layer. For these products, we start with our existing technologies and refine them by exchanging ideas with the customer. We are also thorough in standardising the production line, enabling efficient mass customisation through the elimination of waste. After a certain period of time has elapsed, the developed products are rolled out as products for other companies and industries.
The third layer involves the creation of new business models by combining the technologies developed in the first and second layers and providing software to utilise them. From 2030 onwards, we hope this will become one of the main pillars of our business, as we work to create businesses that have not been seen before, such as value creation, data solutions, and brand strategy, but with a distinct Murata feel to them.
Transforming ESG responsibility into business growth
The private sector is also now under increasing pressure to carry out initiatives to achieve the SDGs, including decarbonisation. However, companies destined to survive in a capitalist society need to undertake such initiatives while making a profit. Even if we make a significant social contribution, unless we reinvest profits to generate higher value for the future, the business will not be sustainable and, consequently, we will not be able to continue with social contributions.
Therefore, how can we transform our so-called ESG efforts (environment, social, governance) into business growth? I believe that this is a question that requires some thought. However, I also believe that there is a lot that Murata can do in that context.
Even as an extension of our traditional business, there is a social contribution to be made in developing and supplying smaller components, thereby reducing waste to a minimum. A social contribution can also be made by improving the performance of storage batteries and power supplies, which are essential for renewable energy, to support more efficient energy use.
To go a step further, Murata has also become one of the first in the industry to commit to running our plants on 100% renewable energy. In December 2020, we joined RE100, a global initiative whose aim is to switch electricity used in business activities to 100% renewable energy. We are working toward achieving the goal of using 100% renewable energy in our business activities by 2050.
As a front-runner in this initiative, Kanazu Murata Manufacturing (Awara, Fukui Prefecture), a manufacturing subsidiary of Murata, adopted 100% renewable energy in November 2021, by installing on-site solar panels and a large-scale storage battery system (Fig. 4). Subsequently, we will expand these efforts to include Sendai Murata Manufacturing (Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture) in April 2022. Although we are currently focusing on small and medium-sized plants, we are in the process of considering various ways in which to convert the electricity used in the entire group's business activities to renewable energy.
Fig. 4: Kanazu Murata Manufacturing
Decarbonisation efforts, such as the introduction of carbon pricing, are moving in the direction of being included on the financial statements of companies in the manufacturing industry. Going forward, there will be pressure for companies around the world to decarbonise their plants. Murata hopes to be able to provide solutions that support decarbonisation in the manufacturing industry based on the knowledge gained and technologies accumulated through our pioneering initiatives. Murata is steadily preparing for the future we expect to see in 10 to 20 years' time.