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Project 02 Revolutionizing optical film manufacturing

An outsider in film manufacturing turns conventional wisdom on its head by making an "absolutely impossible" melt extrusion process a reality.

A new production facility was completed at the Takaoka Plant in December 2001. Its purpose was to manufacture optical film using the groundbreaking resin ZEONOR through the melt extrusion process, which the industry had considered to be an absolute impossibility.
Industry and corporate analysts carefully watched as ZEON tackled this unprecedented challenge that seemed to transcend conventional thinking. Kohei Arakawa (currently a senior corporate officer at ZEON), however, went on to accomplish some astonishing results.

The new facility was completed before a manufacturing process was established, which represented a truly formidable challenge in an initiative that could not fail.

  • Kohei Arakawa (currently a senior corporate officer)

Optical film is a key material component of liquid crystal displays. Prior to ZEON's breakthrough, solvent casting had been the conventional production process, in which raw material was turned into film by melting it into a solvent, pouring the solvent onto a metallic belt, and slowly drying it as the belt was leveled. The process, however, requires an extended drying line with low productivity. The environmental impact of the solvent used to melt the material also posed a problem.
As a latecomer to this business, ZEON had to establish cost competitiveness and decided to take on the challenge of producing optical film through melt extrusion, which offered superior productivity, although major quality issues remained to be solved.
Another major manufacturer had already spent years attempting to establish this process before ultimately failing, resulting in the industry's accepted wisdom that producing optical film through melt extrusion was impossible. The challenge was now being taken up by ZEON – a company with no optical experts, let alone a track record in film manufacturing. And virtually no one expected the company to succeed. Moreover, the endeavor included the unconventional strategy of constructing the plant in advance. Although the plan seemed foolhardy at first, it included a means for recovering the investment by constructing a parallel manufacturing facility for front lights. So, from a management perspective, it was not as foolhardy as it might have appeared.
Mr. Arakawa, who was working at a major film maker at the time, had envisioned a way to successfully establish the process. "At first I also thought it was imprudent when I heard that ZEON, which had no film engineers, was constructing a film manufacturing plant. After that, I was invited by then Senior Corporate Officer Yamazaki, who said, 'Join us and lead this business.' I needed some time to sort out my thoughts but eventually began to think that the conventional wisdom – that you can't produce optical film through the melt extrusion process – was merely a perception held by the industry, and I decided to place my bet on the superior qualities of ZEONOR."
Mr. Arakawa had made up his mind to take on the challenge and, in January 2001, launched an unprecedented effort to turn conventional wisdom around.

Successful manufacturing takes only nine months. In just one year, ZEONOR captured a 90% share of the mobile phone market.

  • Film

The biggest problem lay in ensuring the precision of film thickness.
According to Mr. Arakawa: "In order to prevent optical distortions, the margin of error had to be constrained to 100μm ± 2μm or less. However, the initial variance was as much as 7%. Although we were able to improve this figure to as low as 3% by optimizing the operating conditions, a breakthrough was needed to move beyond this boundary."
Improvement efforts were not conducted at a pilot installation but instead at the completed facility, where experimentation continued with no practice runs. Large volumes of resin were poured into the production machine and research costs ballooned daily, but management understood the challenges and stayed the course.
"There was an instinctive sense of mission at the production site to produce results that met quality requirements," said Mr. Arakawa. "It was as though the word 'impossible' didn't exist. Over the course of round-the-clock, onsite observations and efforts by the development team, one researcher came up with a breakthrough idea. A lot of wisdom had gone into that idea, and thickness improved with each day until we were able to achieve a margin of error at or less than 1%. At this point, we had already exceeded the quality level of the solvent casting process."
In October 2002, the product was delivered to a company that makes polarizing film for liquid crystal displays. Sales of ZEONOR film soared when it was adopted for use in mobile phones, and in just one year it incredibly captured a 90% share of the market for retardation film used in these devices.
Mr. Arakawa said: "It had only achieved success in a small market. Around the time, a national project for developing high-definition, low power consumption displays for the next generation of products had just been launched, and I proposed an entirely new concept for retardation films based on ZEONOR. The proposal was accepted, and we set off to meet the challenges of developing a new technology for an even larger market."

Liquid crystal television

Establishing the melt extrusion process was only a small first step into an entirely new world. But the overall endeavor did not ensure smooth sailing in the future and it required endurance on the part of management.
A new business is always accompanied by risk. In the fall of 2007, the subprime crisis struck and the Himi Plant, which had just been completed in September, had not been used at all. Several managers began urging an end to the company's foray into a money-losing, unfamiliar business. But thanks to President Furukawa, who believed the work was possible and was willing to be patient, the project would continue.

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