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Are we seeing the end of a golden era for display manufacturing in Japan? It sure seems so.

Earlier this month, Reuters published a story quoting sources inside Panasonic that state they are finally pulling the plug on plasma TV production. The exit is to be complete by the end of March 2014, otherwise known as the end of the company’s current fiscal year.

According to the Reuters story, Panasonic has been unable to stem the tide of red ink resulting from its television operations. In the past two fiscal years, Panasonic has lost $15 billion, with TV operations accounting for a $913 million hit in fiscal 2012.

I can’t say this decision was all that surprising. Ever since plasma TV shipments hit their peak in the mid-2000s, market demand has shifted rapidly to LCD technology. In fact, during FY 2012, there were more CRT TVs shipped worldwide (6.9% market share) than plasma (5.7% market share), according to NPD DisplaySearch.

Of course, LCD technology remains king of the hill with an 87.3% market share – an increase from last year, even though overall TV shipments dropped by 6% worldwide. And LCD still has plenty of legs – witness the advancements in TFT design (IGZO), backlights (quantum dots), and resolution (4K) that are now breaking into the market.

Panasonic is a strong player in LCD, and operates a Gen 8 fab that cranks out IPS-Alpha glass in Himeji, Japan. In fact, they shipped more TVs last year than Sharp and weren’t that far behind Sony.  But Panasonic had already idled a good portion of its plasma TV fab capacity by the start of 2013, including a brand-new facility in Shanghai and about 50% of its Osaka operations.

The departure of Panasonic may also result in Samsung and LG dropping plasma from their TV portfolios. For each company, plasma TVs remain the “value” product offering, with 60-inch LG 1080p plasma sets going recently for about $800 while equivalent 60-inch LCD sets with some bells and whistles command about 10% – 30% higher prices.

Still, the market for TVs is expected to continue a slow decline, thanks to shifting interest in tablets and smartphones for media consumption. There just isn’t any more time (or money) left to indulge small niche display technologies. It’s enough of a challenge for Japanese TV makers to approach profitability.

And things will only get worse. Japan can’t compete with Korea, and now has to deal with Chinese LCD TV manufacturers. In Q1, China was the only country to show an increase in LCD TV shipments Y-Y, while in the rest of the world, TV shipments fell by 4%.  The Chinese have enthusiastically embraced LCD manufacturing and are now cranking out big 4K panels, with the current world’s largest model (110 inches) coming from the CSOT fab in Shenzen. And they’re enjoying the strongest profit margins in the industry, too.

One result of this trend is super-cheap LCD TVs, often selling for less than $40 per diagonal inch. And the commercial AV channel has taken notice: Instead of specifying front projectors and screens, they’re putting in 70-inch, 80-inch, and 90-inch 1080p LCD screens instead. No more lamp changes, no ambient light issues, and “set it and forget it” operation – these are all strong selling points that financial and higher education markets have now embraced.

It’s hard to make a buck selling projectors – margins are very slim, and a great deal of product moves through distribution channels these days. Combine those thin margins with a trend away from front projection, and you have the “beginning of the end” for more than a few notable projector brands.

Consequently, Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions announced on October 11 that they were pulling out of the projector market for good, and also ceasing sales of large LCD monitors. Previously, the company had enjoyed good market share across a number of projector categories and even announced a new line of hybrid and “cloud” projectors at ISE and InfoComm.

Now, that’s all history. Mitsubishi will instead concentrate on tiled displays and videowalls, categories where they’re still profitable.  But they won’t be the last company to bid adieu to projectors: Sharp’s InfoComm and ISE booths have focused almost exclusively on large LCD displays, but they still list projectors on their Web site despite dwindling market share and continued struggles with red ink and underutilization of their huge Gen 10 Sakai LCD fab. How long before Sharp throws in the towel on projection?

These are not happy times for Japan Incorporated’s once-dominant TV industry, which is undergoing the same sort of painful downsizing the U.S. TV industry endured in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back in the day, Ernest Hemingway wrote a famous novel titled, “The Sun Also Rises.” If and when some future author records the last days of Japanese display manufacturing, that account could well be called, “The Sun Also Sets”…

Posted by Pete Putman, October 18, 2013 1:29 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.