Chapter13 Recognized as an International Standard

Recognized as an International Standard

In order for Sony's English-language word processors to sell well, the 3.5 inch MFD needed to be used by other manufacturers. "We shouldn't keep this media for ourselves. Let's try to get other computer manufacturers to use the 3.5 inch disk media and drive," was the general consensus at Sony. In other words, Sony wanted to provide the 3.5 inch disk drive on an OEM basis to other manufacturers.

However, Sony management had announced guidelines to limit the manufacture and sales of OEM products at the time. Kato reasoned with Ibuka and other members of management until he finally won approval for his plans.

In spring 1982, the year following the US introduction of the Series 35, Sony began selling the 3.5 inch disk drive as a component to other manufacturers. Within Sony, however, engineers were not willing to develop items that would not be sold under the Sony name.

"We have to get each and every person to understand," Kato said. In April 1983, the engineers who were working on computer R&D in the System Development Division formed the Mechatronics Business Group, and Kato was appointed its general manager. His primary objective was to create an environment within the group that would generate a strong passion for the promotion of OEM business.

In 1982, an inquiry came from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP). "We'd like to use the 3.5 inch MFD drive and media for our new computer." Engineers at HP loved to teach. These teachers and Sony's engineers, the "students," soon developed a very strong relationship. Building on this relationship, the 3.5 inch MFD drive was perfected and refined to a level usable by computer manufacturers, including HP.

Other competitors began announcing products based on a similar concept, and a struggle started to standardize the technology. HP stood by Sony and lobbied for the 3.5 inch MFD to be recognized as the international standard. Since Sony was a newcomer to the floppydisk market, this support from HP was more than Sony could possibly have hoped.

One year after Sony's announcement, Matsushita, Hitachi and Maxell announced a 3.0 inch floppydisk. Kato and his team more than welcomed the appearance of this new disk because it was also housed in a plastic shell, albeit a 3.0 inch shell. However, the disk had only half the memory capacity. "We no longer have to explain why the shell has to be plastic. Now that we have competition from a similar product, it's easier to explain how our product is better," they said confidently.

Following the announcement of the 3.0 inch disk, disks of sizes within 3.0 inches plus or minus an inch were announced one after the other. Competition grew fierce, but in the end, the main contenders were Sony's 3.5 inch disk and the 3.0 inch disk. Eventually, the better specifications and powerful ally Sony had found in HP led the 3.5 inch MFD to victory.

In 1984, Sony succeeded in persuading ANSI (American National Institute for Standardization) to endorse the 3.5 inch MFD. Then, the Sony format was recognized by JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) in Japan and ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association) in Europe.
Finally, the 3.5 inch was recognized by the ISO (International Standards Organization), which influences the recognition of standards in all nations, and it became a fully recognized international standard. All of this happened in 1984, the year the Soviet Union and other Communist countries boycotted the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

With the move toward standardization of the 3.5 inch MFD, Apple Computer also endorsed the standard. Apple's request for a thin and reasonably priced disk drive for use in their PCs led to the establishment of an automated production line at Sony Audio System plant (now known as Sony Component Chiba). This line integrated Sony's FA (factory automation) technology and effectively generated further improvements in Sony's MFD production technology. Eventually, IBM endorsed the 3.5 inch MFD for their PS series computers. This successful OEM business arrangement with the world's leading computer manufacturers attested to the reliability of the Sony product.

A Dream Comes True: The Lithium-Ion Rechargeable Battery

Sony-Eveready, founded in February 1975 as a joint battery-manufacturing venture with US-based Union Carbide Corp., was growing steadily. The original agreement for Union Carbide to develop the batteries and for Sony to manufacture and market in Japan was very much in place (see Part II, Chapter 10).

In January 1984, Keizaburo Tozawa, who had played an instrumental role in negotiations with Union Carbide at the time of establishing the joint venture, became chairman of Sony-Eveready. Although he had worked so tirelessly to create the new joint venture, he was a complete amateur on the subject of batteries, so he began studying diligently. Sony's ultimate goal was to create a rechargeable battery.
At the time, the biggest concern in Japan's dry cell battery industry was environmental mercury contamination caused by discarded batteries. Sony's yearning for a battery that could be reused again and again was growing stronger everyday. Tozawa and others at Sony-Eveready remembered that the engineers from Union Carbide had once noted "Lithium is a promising material for batteries." Indeed, lithium is a light metal and has high conductivity, making it well-suited as material for a rechargeable battery.

On the other hand, metallic lithium requires careful handling, as it explodes when in contact with water. At the time, only very small button-shaped lithium batteries were available, most of them classified as hazardous products. Battery manufacturers like Sanyo Industries and Matsushita Battery Industrial Co., were aggressively developing rechargeable batteries that used nickel. When it came to lithium batteries, however, manufacturers were very cautious and hesitant. Union Carbide was no exception. Despite repeated pleas from Sony to develop lithium batteries, Union Carbide dragged its feet. Sony was in a bind between its desire for a lithium rechargeable battery and the stipulations of the joint venture agreement. In the midst of this, Sony was dealt a surprise blow.

Just after Tozawa finished his New Year's speech to employees in 1986, he received a shocking telegram from Union Carbide. It stated, "Union Carbide has announced its intention to sell all of its consumer goods businesses, including batteries." Union Carbide had made the move to cover heavy compensation payments in the aftermath of an explosion at one of its plants in India.

When Sony-Eveready first began operations, it was expected that the company would receive technical support from Union Carbide. If the telegram was true, Sony-Eveready would lose this technical support. Moreover, what would happen to Union Carbide's half of the shares of Sony-Eveready? Tozawa left for the US with Sony's legal staff in an attempt to stop Union Carbide from selling its business to a third party. Tozawa thought that he had to do his utmost to stop this.

The negotiations with Union Carbide lasted three days. Lawyers representing both sides were preset, and it looked as if negotiations would collapse or result in a lawsuit. Finally, both sides agreed to the following: Sony would buy Union Carbide's shares of Sony-Eveready and would no longer use the registered trademark of Eveready by continuing to pursue its battery business under a different brand (see Part II, Chapter 10).

In March 1986, Sony's battery business was reestablished under the Sony-Energytec Inc. banner. Ibuka teased Tozawa by saying, "You've given yourselves an ambitious name. Are you aspiring to deal in atomic energy or something?"

Tozawa decided to turn the crisis into an opportunity to develop original lithium rechargeable batteries. He became the project leader. Thus Sony's quest for the development, manufacture and sales of the lithium rechargeable battery was underway.

Safe, Powerful and Long-Lasting

A sample of lithium-ion
rechargeable batteries

"Tozawa's project management style was based on a range finding system employed by the Japanese Navy. By shooting three guns at once, all aiming at the same target, the chance that one of the guns will actually reach the target is greater. With this approach, the target is reached faster and more accurately. In the same manner, Tozawa decided to start several research efforts simultaneously using slightly different approaches to reach the target of developing a lithium rechargeable battery. In this way, time lost when pursuing a fruitless avenue of research was kept to a minimum. However, this approach required the investment of many resources, namely, engineers, equipment and money. To manage it all, Tozawa became the project leader. In this position, he could make decisions on where to make investments. He could also free the engineers to concentrate on their assignments without having to worry about taking responsibility. The official announcement for the project (as one directly under the supervision of Tozawa) was made in July 1987.

At first, six research projects dealing with different materials were endorsed. At monthly meetings, these were all evaluated and eliminated one by one. The team was going through a process of trial and error in search for the "dream battery." Finally, one of the research teams began rejoicing; "We got it!"

This newly developed lithium battery did not use potentially dangerous metallic lithium or lithium alloys. Instead, it employed a special ionic lithium alloy called lithium cobalt oxide for the positive pole and a carbon material for the negative pole. There was no danger of damage due to water, making the battery very safe. The number of cycles in a single battery exceeded 1000, one and a half times that of a nickel-cadmium rechargeable battery. The integrated energy volume or the amount of energy obtainable when used to its limit of 1,000 cycles, was four times that of a nickel-cadmium battery of a similar type, and the equivalent of approximately 1,300 non-rechargeable, alkaline manganese dioxide batteries. In addition to the long life span of the battery, its energy density and average operating voltage were three times that of nickel-cadmium batteries of a similar type. The Sony battery was named the lithium-ion rechargeable battery, and Tozawa became known as its "Godfather."

The selection of materials for the poles and electrolyte solution of this powerful battery was the result of endless tests conducted by the project members. For example, there were various types of carbon compounds that could have been used for the negative pole, which would affect the battery's performance. The engineers in charge of materials development searched for a better material in order to find new carbon compounds.

However, there were several problems that needed to be solved prior to its announcement. Patents had to be obtained for the carbon compounds and the methods used to create the lithium-ion alloy. In addition, an application had to be filed in the US for the product to be excluded from the hazardous materials list. Tozawa and the engineers worked frantically to solve these problems as fast as possible.

Furthermore, a production plan for the battery was developed early on. These preparations were spearheaded by the Sony Energytec engineers and backed by the entire Sony Group to enable a smooth start for mass production. By the time the product announcement was being prepared in 1988, production facilities with the capacity to manufacture 100,000 units per month were installed at the Koriyama plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

The announcement was finally made in February 1990. Sample shipments began the same year, and mass production started from the following year. In September 1990, the Battery Business Group was founded within Sony. Koichi Tsunoda, then president of Sony Energytec, was appointed as its general manager, and efforts towards full-scale mass production were initiated.

When this battery was used to power the Sony CCD-TR1 8 mm camcorder, it received favorable reviews. As a result, competing battery manufacturers also began to produce lithium-ion batteries.

Once the potential of this high energy density, long-lasting and safe lithium-ion rechargeable battery was recognized, applications began to expand. Not only could it be used for camcorders, but it could also power other portable AV equipment, including CD players, compact LDC televisions sets, word processors, portable PCs, mobile cellular phones, PHS (Personal Handyphone System) units and other items. Soon, manufacturers began to advertise the use of lithium-ion storage batteries as a key selling point of their products. Having succeeded in developing the first lithium-ion battery, Sony today still maintains a high market share and is the leading company in the field.

For the development of the battery in April 1994, the Electrochemical Society of Japan awarded Sony the Tanahashi Prize, which commemorates the development of outstanding technology. In February 1995, Sony was awarded the Ohkouchi Prize, recognized as the most prestigious award for production engineering and technology in Japan. These awards are proof of its high performance. In September 1995, Sony succeeded in developing lithium-ion battery module for use in electric vehicles, a project Sony began in 1992. This achievement points to the future of the lithium-ion battery, while marking a further improvement in the battery's overall performance.