It's a "Korean Thing"

Some companies remain reluctant to openly share market information

Some companies remain reluctant to openly share market information

I recently returned from a trip to the Republic of Korea, where I participated in Laser Korea 2010, which was co-located with Nano Korea 2010. While there I had the opportunity to meet with the CEOs of several leading Korean manufacturers of industrial laser systems that are installed domestically and in global markets. I also met with laser system users including the retired head of a major auto maker, who had been responsible for the introduction of a laser roof-to-side ring brazing installation. Meetings and discussions with program leaders from various R&D laboratories and professors from universities doing nano manufacturing research were valuable.

For years ILS has had little success in defining the scope of the industrial laser activity in Korea as companies there have been reluctant to share market data and there is no official statistical reporting procedure. On this trip I was able to expand some established relationships to enable a review of the current and future industrial laser markets in this vibrant technologically oriented country.

First I should advise that many of those I met with openly acknowledge a "conspiracy" of silence among Korean companies who are averse to sharing non-public information with outsiders. At one dinner, my hosts, company CEOs, laughed at the cause of my perplexity, calling it a "Korean Thing." Also at that dinner the retired auto company executive freely shared information about several of that company's laser operations, expressing "surprise" that I was unaware of the company's use of laser welded tailored blanks. He listened patiently while I elaborated on the difficulties I had trying to arrange visits to his assembly plants. When I asked if he would have let me visit when he was in charge, he just smiled enigmatically.

When I visited the CEO of the largest laser systems supplier, he shared his view of the Korean markets, concluding by drawing his finger and thumb across his mouth, making a zipping sound. His point: companies do not share the information he had just told me. I was not given a copy of his presentation and the whiteboard he used was immediately erased. Several times, as we toured the company's eight buildings, he used the zipper motion after describing the function of specific units being assembled.

What I did learn from the many discussions is that Korea very likely surpasses China as a supplier and user of sophisticated industrial laser systems, primarily for laser processing of displays such as OLEDs and LCDs, semiconductors, solar cells, mobile phone manufacture, PCB and RIFD devices, and other custom micromachining applications. Other laser companies supply macro processing systems for the global fabricated metal, electronics and automotive industries.

A rough calculation suggests that Korean laser system companies are producing revenues in the $600-$700 million range, all from a country the size of Indiana with less than 50 million people. Companies remain reluctant to openly share market information. Public unawareness of the magnitude of the Korean activity seems to agitate several CEOs, even while they acknowledge the "Korean Thing" is part of the reason. Data from the publically traded companies does not tell the complete story; for example, one relatively young company with current revenues approaching $200 million expects to reach $500 million two years after they conduct an IPO next year.

As we shared a bibimbap mixed rice lunch, one CEO asked what message I would bring back from my trip. On a damp napkin I drew a pie chart showing Korea as a significant wedge in the ILS revenue numbers for the Asian market and said that I would be tweaking my final numbers accordingly. Then those at the table convulsed with laughter as I zipped my mouth shut.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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