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Japanese electronics manufacturers uncertain about future

Japan is a leading producer of electronics components for the global market. Since the earthquake, many factories have been shut down indefinitely and others say they haven't been affected yet at all.

By Mary Helen MillerCorrespondent / March 18, 2011

Office workers leave the headquarters of Sony Corp. in Tokyo Thursday, March 10, 2011, the day before a 8.9 earthquake struck Japan. Since then, electronics manufacturers like Sony have had to shut down some of their operations.

Koji Sasahara / AP

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Fortunately for consumers, electronics are not like oil.

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A sudden cost-increase in components doesn't send retail computer prices soaring. Rumors of a chip shortage today don't affect the price or availability of smartphones and iPads tomorrow.

Which is why the natural and nuclear disaster that has rocked Japan, which produces a fifth of the world’s semiconductors and more than a third of its electronics and audio-visual components, has yet to register in electronics stores in the United States, Europe, or the rest of Asia. Although big manufactures such as Toshiba, Canon, Fujitsu, Panasonic, Sony, and Renesas have temporarily halted some operations because of electricity shortages or outright damage, the ripple effects of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster are still being sorted out.

Much depends on how long factories stay out of commission and how quickly key infrastructure in affected parts of Japan – from roads to ports to power plants – can be rebuilt to allow the companies to make and export their goods. Immediate concerns centered on a specific kind of memory chip called NAND flash as well as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) – the small lights common in many computers and other electronic equipment.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty with regards to infrastructure, electricity, roads, etc.,” said David Wong, a US-based spokesman for SanDisk, which saw two of its Japanese semiconductor factories jointly owned with Toshiba close temporarily. “It will probably be many days or weeks before we know the extent of the impact."

The most noticeable ripple so far has been in computer memory, especially a kind of memory known as NAND flash, which is common in portable electronics. In the days following the earthquake and resulting tsunami, prices for NAND flash and another kind of computer memory known as DRAM surged up to 20 percent on the open market, said Paul Romano, the chief operating officer at Fusion, an electronics component distributor in Andover, Mass.

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