Mark Wolf – Executive Vice President, Kyocera
We are so grateful to Mark Wolf, Executive Vice President of Kyocera for taking the time to chat with us ahead of his panel session at Ceramics Expo 2023. It was a really insightful discussion that lifted the lid on some of the key trends shaping the technical ceramics industry, that will hopefully wet your appetite to find out more at the event this May.
Could you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I am Executive Vice President of Kyocera International, Inc., overseeing U.S. manufacturing and sales of advanced ceramic materials and components as leader of the company’s Fine Ceramics Group. Prior to joining Kyocera, I held leadership positions at a number of other distinguished ceramics and electronics manufacturing enterprises, including Trans-Tech, Inc., a subsidiary of Skyworks International, Inc.; AmberWave Systems Corporation; Tyco Electronics; AMP; M/A-Com and Tachonics Corporation.
I hold BS/MS degrees in Materials Science from MIT; and I work with start-up companies through my involvement with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, First Founders Limited and Accelerate DC.
You will join us as a panel speaker for the session focused on the "Current Market landscape for Ceramics" on Tuesday, May 2nd. Could you tell us how you have seen the industry shift, develop and/or grow over the last few years?
Many current trends are having a profound impact on the ceramics industry. Some of these trends are literally reshaping the markets we serve, by creating new applications for ceramic materials and enabling new technologies with potentially revolutionary impact on our world. Other trends affect how we operate – such as our changing global climate and our priority as an industry to reduce our carbon footprint. For example, Kyocera announced a target last year to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and many companies in our industry are adopting similar goals. Importantly, environmental awareness is not only impacting our operations, but also creating new business opportunities. This is the first big trend.
The second major trend is seen in the new geopolitical challenges arising across the planet, including military conflicts and trade friction among major economies. This trend is overturning some basic assumptions that had characterized our world over the past 30 years. For most of our careers so far, industry conferences were generally devoted to the topic of “Globalization.” Today the topic is “Economic Decoupling” – the exact opposite of globalization. It’s a scenario in which the United States and its potential rivals opt for divergent technologies and trade standards, and rely increasingly on separate and independent supply chains. This trend has the potential to change where we source raw materials and where we will build manufacturing facilities for the next 25 years. It’s looking like a real paradigm shift.
Third is the revolution in mobility. Here we are, sitting in the heart of the automotive industry, which has witnessed a profound change in the move towards hybrid vehicles -- and now, fully electric cars. This is creating requirements for new technologies like LiDAR and GaN Lasers that will need the industry to step up its development cycles and get products to market even faster.
And that brings up a fourth key trend. No matter where we build our factories, we are all suffering from a lack of available manufacturing and engineering talent, a lack of diversity inside that talent pool including women and underserved communities, and skyrocketing labor costs, as all industries strive to hire the employees they need from a shrinking labor pool. Talent development must begin much earlier, in my opinion – by making materials science and advanced ceramics “cool” subjects to learn about in our grade schools. This has to happen.
Which ceramic applications are you most excited about and why?
The term “application” can refer to something very specific, so please let me speak more about three broad areas in which ceramics can play a tremendous role in the future. I’ll touch on some of the trends I mentioned earlier.
First, even as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, the trend toward mobile communications and remote work will continue to re-shape our world, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s good for the environment.
To support this trend, we need new data center technologies to speed up internet traffic while reducing power requirements in the typical server. Today, internet data centers represent one of the fastest-growing sources of electrical demand worldwide. The ceramic industry can play a key role in speeding up data transfer rates and reducing power requirements by enabling new optical communication technologies, from onboard optics modules to silicon photonics. Data travels through light at far higher speeds, and with a far lower power requirement, than data traveling through traditional electronic circuits and cables. All of our top-tier infrastructure providers are targeting wider deployment of optical technologies, and there is no easy way to achieve those targets without new innovations enabled by ceramic materials.
Second, in looking at greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that residential power and heating contribute a large share. Renewable technologies like wind and solar can help, but they come with the disadvantage of intermittency – we don’t generate unless the sun shines or the wind blows. Future power storage technologies can help overcome this, but the development process is long and expensive. In the meantime, there is tremendous potential to use our existing power portfolio more efficiently and more cleanly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without the problem of intermittent generation. There are many examples in this category but the one I’m most excited about is the Solid Oxide Fuel Cell, or “SOFC.” This technology produces electricity, heat and residential hot water by extracting hydrogen from utility-supplied gas, or LP gas, and triggering a reaction with oxygen in the air. Japan is a world leader in this technology, and Kyocera has been developing ceramic core components for SOFC systems for more than 35 years.
Third, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, or “ADAS.” We could have a whole conference on this topic alone, but in the limited time we have, I’ll just make the broad observation that the “vision” we have for self-driving cars depends heavily on ceramic materials. Here’s one example: smart-sensing headlights. Using Gallium Nitride, Kyocera has developed super-high-brightness automotive headlight modules with eye-safe laser-based white light sources that can drastically increase the lighting range and visibility for enhanced safety, as well as shrinking the optics to enable new styling in compact form factors. Moreover, these LaserLight sources can be configured for dynamic beam-shaping at high speeds to avoid projecting glare onto oncoming cars and selectively illuminating objects of interest and hazards such as deer. I find that impressive on its own, but the really exciting technology involves adding a second infra-red (IR) laser into the same white light LaserLight source. This results in the super-high-brightness, shapable high beam white light that not only illuminates with superior properties versus LEDs, but also enables IR illumination for night vision and increased visibility in fog and smoke, precise distance sensing, and LIDAR imaging from the headlight. This fusion of white light illumination, IR illumination, and sensing can inform the ADAS system with vast amounts of data to detect potential road hazards long before any human eye could ever see them. This is just one example – and like many others, it would never be possible without ceramics.
What are the key challenges and/or opportunities facing the ceramics industry?
To me, the first key opportunity lies in maximizing new production technologies like additive manufacturing. Full disclosure: Kyocera builds piezo-ceramic printheads for 3D printing applications. However, most markets have not fully deployed this as a tool, even for obvious applications like rapid prototyping. For ceramics, 3D printing can be key to creating complex shapes in a structural component, enabling products that we would never be able to build efficiently through conventional forming methods. The gradual adoption means 3D-printed ceramic technology is still in its infancy, even today. We see great potential for growth in applications where material-forming challenges would have ruled out ceramics in the past, and now 3D-printed ceramics are suddenly changing the equation.
Second, although I mentioned global economic decoupling earlier as a challenge to our supply chains, it will create new opportunities as well. A lot of the low-cost manufacturing that has been outsourced to China in particular now suddenly has new potential to return to the United States. In short, the U.S., Mexico, and the developing economies of Asia are likely to see rising levels of manufacturing investment. We are already seeing new U.S. policy to reinforce local production of strategic products. Three areas likely to benefit from onshoring include network infrastructure, secure servers and base stations; factory automation technologies; and semiconductors. All three depend on advances in ceramics.
Third, reducing our carbon footprint is another long-term challenge I mentioned earlier. Many technologies can help us, but the investment can be huge. Kyocera’s approach is to set long-term targets, and then make consistent, incremental improvement toward the goals. I mentioned that Kyocera has a target to become carbon neutral by 2050. There will be many milestone targets along the way, and at least two stand out as mid-term goals to achieve by 2031: first, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46% from FY2020 levels; and second, increasing our adoption of renewable energy by 20-fold from FY2014 levels. This is an aggressive plan, but by conducting annual assessments and reviews, we’ll do it.
Finally, a challenge confronting us all is managing the demand cycle. Many industries we serve follow a distinct “boom and bust” pattern. Nonetheless, we are expected to be equipped for expansion on a moment’s notice. Ceramic manufacturing is capital intensive. It can take years to build capacity — and millions of dollars in investment — and the payoff on that investment also takes years. Consequently, we often find ourselves building new capacity during a boom, and once the new plant is built, the industry is entering a slowdown. We end up with idle capacity for four to eight quarters, even though we’re depreciating that investment every month. I don’t have an easy answer for this, but a list of challenges facing our industry would be incomplete without this one.
What are you most looking forward to at Ceramics Expo 2023?
I most look forward to meeting with customers and catching up with colleagues from the industry. The competitive spirit of this industry is what keeps us all innovative, and continuously making advancements in technology and methodology. Additionally, I look forward to my team's post-panel “compa.” This Kyocera tradition involves opening your mind, as well as aligning our employee’s vectors through exchanging opinions and storytelling. When we dine together we have a compa. We celebrate and break bread after a long day at work. New employees give speeches, and we toast “kampai” to good health, spirits and successful business.
Mark will be speaking in the panel sesson, "Current Market landscape for Ceramics" on Tuesday, May 2nd. To find out more about the conference agenda, please click here.
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