For anyone wondering where big Asian electronics companies will find growth, one answer might be as close as the family car.
Technology companies in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia that grew by making personal computers and other consumer gadgets are increasingly turning their attention to automotive electronics -- a variety of products, including satellite navigation systems and sensors used for air bags. The industry is dominated by established giants in Japan, the United States and Europe, but analysts say rapid growth in the next several years, among other factors, offers openings for new players in auto electronics.
By 2007, the value of electronics in the average car will grow by more than 65 percent, to $1,705, from 2003, according to estimates by brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. Global car sales are forecast to grow to 45 million units from 40.2 million units in that period, it says.
Several trends are combining to drive growth and create opportunities.
Gadgets such as onboard entertainment and navigation systems are increasingly common features in new cars. Big carmakers also are adding more safety features, such as distance sensors and additional air bags, that use electronics. And environmental concerns and high oil prices are driving demand for electronics that can improve fuel efficiency.
Meanwhile, established car-parts producers are outsourcing more of their electronics production. U.S. auto-parts giants such as Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp. farm out some of their electronics production to contract manufacturers, and that share could grow given steady pressure from automakers to cut costs, said Mike Williams, a Gartner Inc. analyst.
The industry's potential is drawing big interest in Taiwan, home to some of the world's biggest PC makers. Taiwan's government has targeted the sector as the island's next "trillion-dollar industry," following in the footsteps of semiconductors and flat-screen panels that bring in total annual revenue of more than $31 billion. Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs is weighing policies such as tax cuts and preferential loans to encourage auto-electronics production.
Many of Taiwan's big tech companies are making forays into the sector, seeking out new growth areas in the wake of shrinking profit margins for products such as PCs and mobile phones. Taiwan companies hope their huge operations in China, where car manufacturing has expanded explosively, can offer them new inroads into the industry. In April, Rock Hsu, chairman of notebook-PC maker Compal Electronics Inc., led a delegation of 40 Taiwan tech-industry executives to China to look for auto-industry opportunities.
Gaining traction in the auto-electronics business is not easy. Corporate relationships are well established, and safety and quality requirements are extraordinarily stringent. Some investors and executives say it could take years before the sector makes meaningful contributions to the bottom lines of Taiwan companies.
"It will be an opportunity for Taiwanese companies" but a "long-term opportunity," said Charlene Wu, a vice president at JF Asset Management in Taiwan.
Terry T.M. Gou, chairman of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the world's biggest contract manufacturer of electronics by revenue, acknowledged the challenges at the company's annual shareholder meeting this month.
"The auto industry is relatively traditional, and it has many demands," he said. "It's a big challenge for us."
Still, Gou is betting auto electronics will help fuel growth for his company, which gets most of its revenue from making PCs and related parts. Gou has designated cars as the fourth "c" in Hon Hai's product offerings, after computers, consumer electronics and communications devices. To jump-start its auto-electronics business, Hon Hai in February acquired AnTec Electric System Co., which makes electronic components for automobile makers such as Ford Motor Co.
Venture Corp. of Singapore also has been beefing up its car-related business. It makes components for car-safety devices and air conditioners, among other products. Automotive products account for less than 5 percent of Venture's revenue but a greater share of profit because their margins are higher, said CLSA analyst Atul Goyal. He expects the auto sector's share of Venture's revenue to expand.
One tech company already feeling a boost from the auto sector is Mitac International Corp. The Taiwan company's global-positioning-system unit has become a global best-seller in the automobile "after market" for installation by buyers who have already purchased their cars.
Unit shipments of the device, launched in 2003, topped 550,000 in the first three months of this year. The gizmo is more profitable than the desktop PCs and servers on which Mitac has traditionally focused. As a result, CLSA expects Mitac's net profit margin to expand to 5.3 percent this year, from half that level two years ago.