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Nikon celebrates centenary with an eye on the future

26 Jul 2017

Camera and lithography giant was created by the merger of two optics companies on July 25, 1917.

Nikon, one of the biggest and best-known brands in the optics sector, has celebrated its 100-year anniversary with the adoption of a new company vision – to “unlock the future with the power of light”.

While best known in the consumer market for its cameras these days, Nikon started out in 1917 as a manufacturer of precision optical glass, before moving into optical instrumentation, microscopes and camera lenses, subsequently providing imaging equipment for an Apollo mission and developing cutting-edge lithography equipment based around argon fluoride (ArF) excimer lasers.

In a message celebrating the Tokyo firm’s landmark, Nikon president Kazuo Ushida introduced the new company vision, writing:

“Society and consumer needs are rapidly changing today. We would like to effectively respond to these needs with the world's highest-class optoelectronics, precision technologies and solutions.

“The difference from our past strategies is that we will offer not only products, but also ideas and solutions as well. Nikon will be reborn as a solution company providing superior technologies and ideas, holding ‘light’ as our core competency.”

Founding fathers
The Nikon story began in 1917 when the company was created through the merger of two of Japan’s leading makers of optics equipment: the optical instruments department of Tokyo Keiki Seisakusho and the reflecting mirror unit of Iwaki Glass Manufacturing.

The merger was partly supported by Koyata Iwasaki, who at that time was the president of Mitsubishi, and joined forces with Fujii Lens Manufacturing immediately after its creation to form a broad-based optics company initially known as Nippon Kogaku – Japan Optical Industries.

It then embarked on an initially unsuccessful project to develop optical glass. When the research effort was revived in the early 1920s, the company installed facilities including a 500 kilogram melting furnace, finally establishing mass production in 1927 and creating an internal supply of material of comparable quality to that available outside Japan.

In the meantime the company had developed its first microscope, utilizing expertise provided by German engineers, with the “JOICO” instrument launched in 1925. It then provided optics for the 8-inch refracting telescope installed on the roof of the Tokyo Science Museum – an instrument that, while modified and improved in the 1950s, remained in use until 2005.

Nikon brand and lithography
It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the Nikon brand name was adopted for small-sized cameras – the name originating from the “Nikko” abbreviation of Nippon Kogaku, with the Nikon Model I launched in March 1948.

1950 saw the company take a key role in the development of Japan’s first large coronagraph instrument, at what is now the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, to study solar coronas.

Then in 1971, Nikon was contracted by NASA to provide cameras for the Apollo moon missions, as well as the early space station Skylab. Among other things, the cameras were used to photograph the Earth’s ozone layer.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Nikon made its move into semiconductor manufacturing equipment, after VLSI Labs invited the company to develop a stepper tool capable of shrinking circuit patterns by an order of magnitude.

“Key to this stepper would be a projection lens capable of high-precision resolution, and a high-precision, high-speed moving stage for positioning,” explains Nikon. “The issue with an ultra-precise, high-speed stage is getting it to move straight. The device developed by Nikon was accurate enough to hit a tennis ball with an arrow on the top of Mt. Fuji all the way from Tokyo.”

After releasing a prototype version in 1978, the “NSR-1010G” commercial stepper arrived in February 1980, boasting micrometer-level resolution.

¥800BN turnover
On its way to becoming a company with annual sales close to a trillion yen, Nippon Kogaku officially adopted the Nikon brand as its corporate identity in 1988. Several generations of digital SLR cameras, microscopes, and excimer laser lithography tools later and the company had become a global power.

Recent highlights have included a key role in the development of the ground-breaking Subaru optical-infrared telescope. Built at the summit of Maunakea in Hawaii, the 8.2 meter instrument features a particularly wide field of view and saw first light in 2000. Subaru’s spectrometer tools, featuring Nikon optics, are able to detect distant stars with extremely low iron content – shedding light on the nature of elemental composition in the young universe.

Crucial recent developments by Nikon in semiconductor lithography equipment have included immersion and multi-patterning tools used to extend the rule of Moore’s law with ArF-based steppers well beyond what was initially thought possible.

That technology has plugged the gap caused by major delays in the development of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology at Nikon’s key rival ASML, with the Japanese firm choosing not to pursue EUV. While multi-patterning and immersion tools remain the lithographic workhorses of semiconductor fabrication facilities right now, the switch to EUV does finally appear to be happening, with ASML booked to ship dozens of the new tools over the next couple of years.

Current challenges
In April this year, Nikon initiated a series of lawsuits against ASML and its optics supplier Zeiss, alleging infringement of a series of key patents describing the immersion technique.

Shortly after that move, Nikon posted a net loss of ¥7.1 billion for its fiscal year ended March 2017, after total annual sales declined 9 per cent year-on-year, to approximately ¥749 billion.

“The semiconductor lithography business did not achieve break-even, the imaging products business faced a shrinking market more than expected, and the development of the growth businesses fell short of expectation,” observed Nikon executives in their assessment of the challenges now facing the giant firm.

That has resulted in a new management plan and restructuring exercise, with a shift in emphasis from revenue generation to profitability. The semiconductor lithography and imaging products business units are both part of that restructure, with more than 1000 Nikon employees accepting the voluntary retirement terms on offer.

But with sales of lithography equipment up strongly since the start of 2017 as a result of a widespread upturn in capacity investment at both semiconductor and flat-panel display (FPD) fabs, Nikon expects to post a net profit for the year ending March 2018, even though total sales are expected to drop to around ¥700 billion.

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