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Oral-History:Ken'ichi Shinoda

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About Ken'ichi Shinoda

Ken'ichi Shinoda is an electrical engineer best known for his work on manganese and alkaline batteries at Fuji Electrical Company. He received a degree in industrial chemistry from Gifu University, specializing in electrochemistry. After he graduation, he went to work in the Fuji Electric Company's battery factory.

The interview begins with a brief description of Shinoda's education and his work at Fuji. He discusses Fuji's success at synthesizing manganese dioxide with electrolysis and the significance of this for battery development at Fuji. He discusses the development of manganese batteries in Japan until 1968, when the U.S. patent on the alkaline battery expired and the Japanese began to produce both alkaline and manganese batteries. He discusses battery research and its attempts to reduce or eliminate poisonous materials in battery production, particularly mercury. He notes that general social pressures rather than government regulation drove battery engineers to reduce these poisonous elements. He discusses Fuji's development of in-house battery manufacturing technology after 1968 and their export policies. He describes the research consortium, incorporated in 1984, of universities and materials suppliers, describing the organization itself and its goals. The interview concludes with Shinoda's speculations on why Japan has several kinds of batteries on the market and the United States does not.

About the Interview

Ken'ichi Shinoda: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray , IEEE History Center, May 19th, 1994

Interview # 202 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Ken'ichi Shinoda, an oral history conducted in 1994 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Ken'ichi Shinoda

Interviewer: William Aspray

Date: May 19th, 1994

Place: FDK Corporation, Kosai, Shizuoka Prefecture

[Note: Shinoda's replies are through a translator]

Background and Education

Aspray:

I'd like to begin by asking you about your early life and training. Would you tell me when and where you were born?

Shinoda:

I was born in 1938, in Nagoya city. When I was six years old, I moved to some province near Nagoya. I got into the Gifu [national university] and studied chemistry in the department of industrial chemistry. My family did manual trade. My grandfather made sales carts that were driven by a man or a horse.

Aspray:

Yes.

Shinoda:

Since childhood I was interested in batteries, and therefore I chose electrochemistry. When I moved to the place on the Pacific Ocean, I used to pour the sea water into the used battery, and it reactivated for a short period. Such things I did. Therefore I entered my company after graduation.

Aspray:

I see. How did you choose this company rather than one of the competitor companies?

Shinoda:

It was because of the location: the company was near Nagoya. It was originally the Toshiba battery factory. The name used to be Tokyo Dinki Kagaku, but not the same as TDK. Then it was purchased by the Fuji Electrochemical Co.; therefore the name was changed to the Fuji Electrochemical Co. The factory was started as a battery factory from the beginning. This company was the first to succeed in industrial synthesis of manganese dioxide with electrolysis.

Aspray:

I see.

Manganese vs. Alkaline Batteries

Shinoda:

My company is very strong because of the domestic home production of the most important material, manganese dioxide. Do you remember the old battery in paper cylinder?

Aspray:

No.

Shinoda:

You are too young.

Aspray:

Yes, I am too young.

Shinoda:

It was sealed with wax or pitch.

Aspray:

I have never seen one of those.

Shinoda:

Here is one.

Aspray:

Yes, I see.

Shinoda:

This metal jacket was introduced after 1955, in Japan.

Aspray:

How does that compare to other countries?

Shinoda:

They followed from United States technology: Ray-O-Vac and Mallory. The U.S. had the basic patent for the alkaline battery. In 1968 the basic patent for the alkaline battery expired. Until that time the manganese battery was the mainstream in Japan.

Aspray:

Rather than license or allow an American company to come in, they made a different kind of battery? Is that correct?

Shinoda:

After the expiration of the patent they became free to produce alkaline batteries in Japan.

Aspray:

I'm asking about before that time.

Shinoda:

Before that time there were almost only manganese batteries.

Aspray:

Were other countries making manganese batteries also?

Shinoda:

Yes. The manganese battery was very common world-wide.

Aspray:

Excuse my ignorance, but what is the difference between the two in qualities?

Shinoda:

Alkaline is heavier.

Aspray:

That's in terms of weight?

Shinoda:

Extra 50% in weight. It means many heavy substances are included in alkaline batteries. There is good efficiency in the electrochemical reaction within that cell. The energy to be utilized is three to one.

Aspray:

I see.

Shinoda:

After the expiration of the patent in 1968 the production of alkaline batteries increased very steeply in Japan, and in the last ten years the growth was very rapid. When we began to produce alkaline batteries, the mercury content was one point five percent.

Reducing Mercury Content of Batteries

Aspray:

The mercury is one point five percent in weight?

Shinoda:

Yes. After ten years the mercury issue became very big in Japan. Journal Kurashi no techo triggered the debate. Each year the level of mercury has been decreased. We have made continuing efforts. We supposed that we could reduce the content of mercury to one third, to point five percent. Theoretically. This was almost impossible, we thought. Through that process the battery will be eroded. There will be erosion of the zinc plate, and generation/evolution of the hydrogen gas. Analyzing such basic electrochemical processes, people said that the limit of mercury reduction, the lowest limit, was point five percent. But we went over that theoretical limit.

Aspray:

You bettered that.

Shinoda:

Yes. Down to point five percent it's not a very difficult task. The normal theory is rather limited, so experimental work can verify it.

Aspray:

So the theory gives you some general idea, but it's not specific enough that you want to base everything in your research program on it?

Shinoda:

Right. Experience and experiment are very important in electrochemistry for batteries. When one connects the battery to a circuit, a current flows. At that instant an electrochemical process, a reaction, within the battery must form; otherwise the good quality of electricity cannot be utilized. But the result of that connection is that if the circuit is open, no reaction should occur. Otherwise the battery will be . . .

Aspray:

Drained away quickly.

Shinoda:

In this sense, battery chemistry is very unique, or not the same as other electrochemistry.

Aspray:

I see.

Shinoda:

There is an off state and an on state. In both states the battery performance must stand very good; otherwise one cannot use the battery.

Aspray:

Yes.

Shinoda:

Put another way, the standing-by performance of a battery is also very important. The time the battery is stored. Such a performance is very important.

Aspray:

So not only must it have to not drain when it is off, and immediately work when it is on, but you have concerns about shelf life.

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

As you've tried to decrease the amount of mercury in the battery, did you have to pay for that change in terms of the economic cost of the battery, or the loss of shelf life, or the maximum power that could be produced at any one time, or the total energy in it? Were there trade-offs?

Shinoda:

We tried to preserve the quality and only to reduce the cost. But in alkaline cells the mercury content was reduced, and the quality was improved.

Aspray:

So your quality improved at the same time the mercury was reduced?

Shinoda:

Yes. The high mercury method is an amalgamation of zinc plate, to avoid erosion of the zinc plate. Zinc plate is very expensive for a battery. Protection against erosion and the ability to generate electricity are not essentially separate.

Aspray:

It's not one of the power producing elements.

Shinoda:

(Showing a diagram) This is the mercury content, and this is the figure of merit of cells. Two points: First, the Japanese battery companies had striven for improving the quality. When the journal Kurashino Techo triggered the debate, the companies were, fortunately, ready to improve the cells. They were able to keep the quality, therefore, reducing the mercury content. The second point is that quality may drop to some extent at that very final stage. It means that a totally mercury-free battery has less quality than mercury contented battery.

Aspray:

One with a very little bit of mercury?

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

But otherwise you were able to improve the performance up until that very end point?

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

Can you tell me something about the experimental work that had to go into this? What were the main challenges? Was it a very expensive operation? Did you have to use expensive equipment to do your research?

Shinoda:

We have achieved that point five percent of mercury content through the purification of zinc plate. Around the point five percent it is one-third of our initial contents, hydrogen gas evolution increased very rapidly. Instead of mercury they tried lead and achieved success. For the alkaline battery one doesn’t use zinc plate, but zinc powder, and they used aluminum.

Aspray:

An alloy?

Shinoda:

An alloy that consisted of zinc and aluminum. It is effective. At the final stage we could replace the mercury totally. We found indium as a substitute for mercury. There is much know-how on substances needed to be effective. The way we used indium, for example, as an alloy or hydroxides. That is our know-how.

Consortium of Battery Manufacturers

Aspray:

That's what differentiates one company's product from another?

Shinoda:

It depends upon the experience, the know-how. We have a consortium. Participants are universities and materials suppliers.

Aspray:

I see.

Shinoda:

We made a corporation in November 1984, a research consortium for alkaline dry-cell technology.

Aspray:

So whatever results this consortium would come up with would be shared with all parties? Is that correct?

Shinoda:

Yes, of course.

Aspray:

Then what would differentiate one company's product from another company's product?

Shinoda:

The results, the contents of mercury, the numbers are the same, but it's somewhat different depending on the companies.

Aspray:

So the kind of information that was produced by this consortium might have been certain kinds of general principles, not particular know-how to manufacture the batteries with these results?

Shinoda:

They use a very common zinc material made by Toho Aen or Mitsui Metals. There are only two major zinc suppliers.

Aspray:

I see.

Shinoda:

The consortium orders as a consortium from suppliers of zinc, and so on.

Aspray:

They set some standards for the suppliers?

Shinoda:

Yes. The consortium has a standing secretary. The members meet together in meetings, and they make a time schedule of the improvement. For example, at the end of this year the percentage will be reduced.

Aspray:

But did they suggest the reduction measures?

Shinoda:

There are many levels of meeting. The whole consortium meets once a year, the general committee meets twice, and the senior members meet twice. Technological meetings are four times per year, and the know-how of the process itself is developed by each company.

Aspray:

I'm still not clear on where the lines are drawn between what kinds of knowledge are shared. Maybe I don't understand what constitutes know-how. I assume that production technologies are know-how, but there also are questions about the basic process that's being used for producing the energy in the battery. Which of those basic processes were appropriate for the consortium to talk about, and which ones were thought of as proprietary to individual companies?

Shinoda:

Discussions about manufacturing technology remain common technology or science. Battery companies have reached a tradition of know-how in each company. Therefore the consortium tried not to destroy such good accumulations of know-how.

Aspray:

I'll ask just one last time, and then I'll let the question go. Can you give me two or three examples of the kind of knowledge that falls under the name "know-how?"

Shinoda:

Chiefly, zinc is the only common material in this consortium project. All the other parts are different depending upon the company. For example, the separator is a composite material of various textiles: the information knowledge, how materials of the separator, packing, or other parts are not open, even in the consortium. Only the zinc is common knowledge.

Aspray:

Yes.

Shinoda:

The consortium was afraid that a member manufacturer of batteries might drop out from the consortium. Some might give up. They were very afraid of such a possibility.

Aspray:

But it didn't happen.

Shinoda:

No. In one meeting, the last company could not achieve the planned figure at the planned time. Therefore the other companies in the consortium waited for half a year to open their result.

Aspray:

Would you say that again?

Shinoda:

Almost all the companies had cleared the planned level.

Aspray:

Had made it to a certain level by a certain time?

Shinoda:

Yes. But some could not, therefore the consortium waited until the last one achieved that. It would be difficult for you to understand such a custom.

Aspray:

Yes. To what degree was the mercury levels mandated by the government?

Shinoda:

The association took the initiative. We explained that nobody was sure to achieve the mercury-free battery. Therefore the government asked industry to reduce the contents, but no definite number was suggested.

Motivations for Mercury Reduction

Aspray:

I'm trying to understand the differences between the way that business is done in Japan and the United States. In the United States, if the battery manufacturers were asked by the government to do something, they might do it, but they would more likely not do it unless they were forced to do it. There are three reasons businesses in America do something. They are told they have to do it, they feel that there is some market reason for doing it, or they have some enlightened management who feel some corporate responsibility to be good citizens. The last of these doesn't happen very often in the United States. So the question then is, what was the rationale? In this situation in Japan, the government is not forcing them to do it, yet they go ahead and do it anyway. What is the reason for doing so?

Shinoda:

I think engineers thought their job was to improve the battery by reducing the content of mercury.

Aspray:

Their professional responsibility?

Shinoda:

Yes. Battery engineers are very concerned to reduce or to eliminate three poisonous substances: mercury, lead, and cadmium. They have almost successfully achieved this.

Aspray:

All three?

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

To pursue this just a bit further: in the United States, companies are run by senior managers who are typically not engineers, but lawyers or business school people. They feel that their ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, not to the technology. If the engineers in an American company came to the management and said, "We feel a responsibility to improve the product", the senior managers would say, "What's in it for our shareholders? Would it give us a better part of the market, or will we make more money? We're not in it just for the technology improvement."

Shinoda:

Their social pressure. Every day, newspapers reported that the local government decided to correct the problems with waste. Separating the poison, containing poisonous substances, removing mercury, and so on. Not only engineers, but also other people were coming to think of a possible future problem if they didn't make some effort at that time. They would have great difficulties with that newspaper in the near future. Maybe this affected their decision. Then the movement of the government guiding them to correct the waste is weakened.

Aspray:

I see, so there is less pressure from the government.

Shinoda:

There is less.

Aspray:

Because the companies acted on their own, is it an appropriate question to ask how expensive this whole process was, how much labor went in, and how much expensive equipment? I'm just trying to get a sense of the dimensions.

Shinoda:

To achieve the mercury-free?

Aspray:

That's right.

Shinoda:

It depends upon the company. Hard to say definitely, but at least several percent of total sales of a company was invested.

Market Share of Alkaline Batteries

Aspray:

In the process. Thank you. I'd like to change the topic somewhat. On this outline here, it says, "developed and produced the alkaline manganese battery on a commercial basis, which makes this undertaking the second largest supplier in Japan." I see a cause and effect relation there. Was that intended? That is, was your success in making the alkaline manganese battery the reason that you could become number two in the market? Had you not been number two in the market before, and this product jumped you up to that spot?

Shinoda:

At the initial stage it was around 1968, with the expiration of the lead acid patent. The company chose to develop manufacturing technology on its own. Other companies...

Aspray:

Continued to import the technology, even after the patent expired?

Shinoda:

Yes. In the stage in following that we had difficulty, but in the long term such independence was very effective in Japan to get the higher market share. It was one of the major keys of our success.

Aspray:

Where had you been in terms of the marketplace at the time of the patent expiration?

Shinoda:

We were below all the major companies, Matsushita, Toshiba, Hitachi.

Aspray:

So there were seven or eight companies that you named, maybe more. At the time that the patent expired were you already number two in market share, or were you lower down in the list?

Shinoda:

At that time the total amount of alkaline production was very small, therefore we had no memory of that market share.

Aspray:

But no matter which company you looked at, very few companies had alkaline products at that time, isn't that right?

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

And so you'd have to look at the total alkaline and non-alkaline batteries. Was it that you were just trying to find a way of preserving your market, or were you trying to expand your market share by taking this approach? The market changed over that period of time, and different companies take different strategies, so I'm trying to understand whether taking this strategy of doing the work in-house rather than licensing from some foreign company was a way to increase market share, or was it a way of just protecting your overall market? We're not so concerned about what your market share in alkaline batteries was, but what your total market share was in small batteries.

Shinoda:

First, recently the percentage of secondary battery was fifteen percent. Manganese was forty-eight percent. Alkaline was seventeen. Silver oxide was ten.

Aspray:

Was ten percent. And that was in what year?

Shinoda:

It was two years ago, in 1992.

Aspray:

Okay.

Shinoda:

Therefore the total percentage of alkaline batteries is comparatively small.

Aspray:

So it's still quite a bit smaller than the manganese battery?

Shinoda:

Maybe the United States alkaline percentage is around seventy-five to eighty percent.

Aspray:

I see.

Shinoda:

In this company, the emphasis is strong upon the production and marketing of the alkaline battery, in comparison with the efforts of the other cells. First we made a line-up from the smallest company to the largest ones in rather a short time. Second, we exported the alkaline battery to the foreign market. At that time the yen was cheap in comparison with dollars, and we were able to export alkaline batteries. It means our sales were in the foreign market, not only in domestic market. Is it a good answer to your question?

Aspray:

That helps considerably. Generally speaking though, batteries are not things that are exported because they are expensive. They're heavy, so they're expensive to ship, aren't they?

Shinoda:

Heavy, but they can be packed into a small volume.

Aspray:

You can pack them, but that's not a serious problem? You can be competitive in a foreign market, even producing them here and shipping them?

Shinoda:

One can package large amounts of batteries in a small volume.

Variety of Batteries in Japan vs. US

Aspray:

Why is the percentage of the different kinds of batteries different in Japan and the United States?

Shinoda:

The western countries have only improved manganese and alkaline. Japan has extra high quality manganese.

Aspray:

I see. That's not quite as high quality as the alkaline, but higher than the improved manganese?

Shinoda:

Yes, and cheaper material. The best Japanese manganese battery is cheaper than the alkaline. Maybe it is one of the grounds. A Japanese consumer has three alternatives in stores, therefore the possibility to buy the expensive and heavier alkaline battery is smaller.

Aspray:

I see. Is there a difference in the way that the batteries are used in the two countries that would account for the difference in what's on the shelf?

Shinoda:

There is not a big difference.

Aspray:

Not big?

Shinoda:

Today the major use is for the Walkman. Today one of the major uses is as a power source for remote control for television, video, and so on.

Aspray:

One of the things I would guess is a difference in the United States is in the way that stores are laid out. Stores are very concerned about having too many different products. There's too much competition for shelf space. They wouldn't want three different kinds. It would be undesirable. Is that a serious problem in sales in Japan?

Shinoda:

Maybe, because of the strong competition. In Japan, of course, also the maximum sales or profit per cubic meter is a concern of stores, but in stores they stock mostly best sellers. In this case there are two bestsellers. The others are not so important for the store.

Aspray:

Is the middle-grade battery, the super manganese one, a Japanese product? And is it protected by patents that are owned by the Japanese? Maybe that would be another explanation for why it is not in the American market?

Shinoda:

It is not protected by patent.

Aspray:

What about the performance versus cost of these three grades? Is the alkaline much more powerful or long-lasting than the others, and does it cost the same percentage more? So it's on the tape, I'll read these figures.

Shinoda:

Okay.

Aspray:

If the basic manganese is considered one hundred percent performance, the super manganese is thirty to forty percent better than that, and the alkaline is two and a half to three times the performance of the basic manganese. In terms of price, if the basic manganese is one hundred yen, the super manganese is one hundred fifty yen, and the alkaline is two hundred seventy yen.

Shinoda:

The performance cost is almost the same.

Aspray:

It's close though you can almost do better at the bottom end. But there's an inconvenience factor, changing your batteries so often. What are the factors that most concern consumers when they are buying batteries?

Shinoda:

General consumers? Price.

Aspray:

Price is the most important thing?

Shinoda:

Yes.

Aspray:

Is name brand a concern? Does it make a big difference?

Shinoda:

The brand name is respected. Panasonic, (i.e. Matsushita) are highly regarded.

Aspray:

Are there other factors that are of particular interest to consumers?

Shinoda:

For tape recorders, Walkman, AA alkaline is preferred because they say the tone quality is good.

Aspray:

I see. I didn't know that. How long does a battery last in a machine like this? Do they know?

Shinoda:

Maybe continuously ten hours. In photograph cameras the Japanese use lithium.

Aspray:

Lithium batteries. Li.

Shinoda:

But in the United States they use alkaline batteries. Their cameras are made in Japan, usually.

Aspray:

What are the greatest concerns for battery companies for the next five to ten years?

Shinoda:

Chargeable lithium-ion batteries. Lithium batteries like that rechargeable battery CRP2.

Future of Rechargeable Batteries

Aspray:

Is there a sense that non-rechargeable batteries have more or less reached their technological limits? That any improvements are going to be at very high cost in the future?

Shinoda:

Yes. There will be no big improvements.

Aspray:

Are there ways of continuing to improve the non-rechargeable batteries in terms of environmental concerns, or is the decision simply to go away from so many non-rechargeables and just use rechargeable batteries?

Shinoda:

They expect no big change.

Aspray:

No big change. I see. We should probably close. It's getting late.

Shinoda:

Thank you.

Aspray:

Thank you.