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Once known only as the world's leading camera maker, Canon has slowly seen the nature of its business change over the years, first towards business machines, and now more firmly in the direction of computer peripherals. The group delivered spectacular growth from the late 1990s until 2007, and is the world's leading manufacturer of office copiers, laser and bubble-jet printers. It generates more than a fifth of its revenues from sales to Hewlett-Packard which resells Canon laser printers under the HP badge. However, like other companies in its sector, it has suffered the impact of the economic downturn since 2008, at least in part from the soaring value of the Japanese yen against other currencies. Canon is one of Japan's most international businesses, generating almost 80% of its revenues overseas.
See Information & Office Technology Sector index for other companies.
Canon ranks among the world's top two or three manufacturers of office imaging and printing products. Not only does it have a powerful and widely recognized brand, but it has consistently featured among the innovators in the sector. It was a major developer of laser printing, and the inventor of bubble jet technology. Financially also Canon has generally proved a powerhouse, showing strong growth for more than a decade from the 1990s, with few bad strategic calls, a record matched by very few other companies in this sector. Yet growth has more or less stalled since the late 2000s, and competition is fierce, especially in the digital camera and office copier segments. In its computer peripherals business, Canon is heavily reliant on one customer, HP, which is also a competitor. The company itself identifies a growing threat from counterfeit Canon products which could undermine its reputation for high quality.
Canon operates across three main divisions of business machines, cameras, and optical and other products. It is the world #1 in office imaging, making a variety of mono and colour copying machines at all levels of the market, as well as multi-functional devices (MFDs) which combine copying with printing, scanning, faxing and other functions. It fastest-growing office imaging line is the ImageRunner network MFD. Canon became the US market leader in copiers for the first time in 2002, overtaking Xerox, and also has an alliance with Microsoft to supply colour-management technology for Windows operating systems. However, the group was forced to recall more than 140,000 low-end personal copiers during 2006 after evidence that their power cords could cause a fire hazard, a rare case of faulty design for the company. At the top end of the market the group has been developing its range of large format commercial printing systems, capable of printing, binding and cutting magazines and books in a fraction of the time taken by traditional offset machines. In 2009, it announced the acquisition of Dutch company Océ, a specialist in industrial printing systems.
Canon is also a leader in computer peripherals such as laser and inkjet printers, scanners and consumables such as toner cartridges. It is the global #2 in hardcopy printers (behind HP), with 19.6% global market share, according to IDC data for 3Q 2017. However, it is also a leading supplier of OEM laser printers to the market leader Hewlett Packard, which resells the products under the HP badge, and had 38.7% share for the same quarter. (Epson was #3 with 17.9%). HP accounted for 15% of Canon's group revenues in 2016 (or around $4.7bn), and almost a third of the sales of its office products division. Other products include micrographic equipment, personal computers, calculators, document scanners and work stations.
Office products accounted for 53% of group revenues in 2016. Third-party sales of office products totalled Y1,805bn ($16.6bn) in 2016, down 14% from the year before. Large format printers accounted for 37% of that total or Y665bn ($6.1bn), colour copiers for 21% (Y386bn / $3.6bn) and monochrome copies for Y290bn ($2.7bn).
Canon refers to its cameras as Image Communication Products. That division makes a wide range of traditional and digital cameras and lenses, and has also moved rapidly (though less successfully) into the digital camcorder sector. After a steady decline during the 1990s, the camera business was rejuvenated by the introduction of digital technology. Canon expanded its range of digital cameras in 2001 in response to growing demand, and saw sales of the range virtually double that year. Overall sales of cameras continued to rise dramatically during that decade, before coming under renewed pressure since 2010 from the increasing sophistication of smartphone cameras. They have fallen sharply and steadily since then.
Canon's models range from Ixus (in Europe), Elph (in the US) and PowerShot compact cameras to sophisticated digital SLR cameras under the EOS brand, and Optura camcorders. Canon is still the worldwide #1 in general digital cameras and also in high-end digital SLR cameras, ahead of Sony and Nikon. Canon estimated a 44% share of interchangeable lens cameras for 2014, and 22% in the compact camera sector.
In 2015, the group took a step in a different direction with the acquisition of Axis Communications, a Swedish company that is a global leader in video surveillance and security cameras. The group has also diversified into image management software, with the acquisition of Danish video management company Milestone and the launch of cloud-based image storage service irista.
The range of consumer-oriented inkjet printers are marketed under the Pixma sub-brand. In 2014, the group launched its first range of printers designed for SME market under the Maxify sub-brand. In the general hardcopy peripherals market, Canon was the #2 supplier in 1Q 2015 with 18% global share, behind HP on 40%, but ahead of Epson (16%), Brother (8%) and Samsung (5%).
Third-party sales of imaging products totalled Y1,095bn ($10.1bn) in 2016, down by 13% on the year before, and the lowest level for a decade. Cameras sales slipped 10% in 2015 and almost another 15% in 2016 to Y667bn ($6.1bn). Sales of inkjet printers are also falling, but less sharply, to Y329bn ($3.0bn) in 2016.
The Opticals Products division manufactures steppers and other specialised equipment for making semiconductors, X-ray machines and high-grade industrial and broadcasting lenses. In 2016, the group acquired struggling Toshiba's medical imaging division for around $6bn. Partly offsetting the decline in Canon's two other main divisions, revenues in this segment have been steadily increasing, reaching Y502bn ($4.6bn) in 2016.
Canon has a huge network of part-subsidiaries, engaged in research or component or related manufacturing. Canon Electronics manufactures laser printers and precision components, mostly for use by the parent company. Canon Sales is a retailer and wholesaler of group products in Japan and the US, and operates as an independent business, selling direct through its chain of Canon Service and Zero-One shops. Canon Finetech makes office machine components including document processors, sorters and feeders. Canon Software makes business application and control software, primarily for group company products.
Canon's revenues peaked in 2007 at Y4,481bn ($38.1bn), before suffering the impact from both currency fluctuations and reduced corporate spending. Since then they have bounced up and down, reaching a low of Y3,209bn in 2009, before making a recovery during 2010. However they have remained consistently below Y4,000bn since 2008.
Revenues for calendar 2016 fell 10% to Y3,402bn ($31.3bn), their lowest level since 2009. Net income slumped by almost a third to Y150.7bn ($1.4bn), also a seven-year low. The Americas have overtaken Europe as the company's biggest region by revenues, contributing more than 28% of sales. Europe added almost 27%, Japan 21% and the rest of Asia/Oceania 24%.
However, performance for fiscal 2017 has shown a strong recovery, with an increase in both revenues and profits expected.
The Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory was founded in 1933 by keen photographer Goro Yoshida and his brother-in-law Saburo Uchida. Their aim was to manufacture cheap copies of the high quality German-made Leica and Contax cameras which then led the market. In 1934, Yoshida launched a prototype of the first Japanese-made 35mm focal-plane shutter camera, and named it "Kwanon" after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. His partner suggested a less religious name and they settled on Canon. The pair licensed the sales operation to another company, Omiya Shashin Yohin, who already marketed a range of optical devices under the Hansa brand. The first Hansa Canon cameras were launched commercially at the end of 1935, for around half the price of a Leica.
With limited funds, production was slow and the company could only turn out ten or fewer cameras a week. In 1936 Yoshida and Uchida handed control of the business, now renamed Seiki Kogaku Kogyo (Precision Optical Industry Co.), to a group of investors. With the new funding they were able to increase staffing. Another benefit was the outbreak of war with China in 1937, which led to the introduction of heavy duties on all imported goods, including German cameras. In 1940, the factory was commission to produce a range of X-ray cameras for military use, as well as high-grade optical lenses. This left it in a strong position to strengthen its business after World War II. In 1946, Takeshi Mitarai, one of the original investors in Precision Optical Industry, was appointed as the company's new president. He focused the business on overtaking Leica, changing the company's name to Canon Camera Company, and floating the business on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1949.
In 1950, Canon acquired a substantial new factory in Tokyo in order to begin preparations for its first steps into the US, the world's biggest photographic market. In 1951, the first Canon cameras went on sale in the US, through local wholesaler Balfour-Gasley. The company opened its own sales outlet on 5th Avenue in New York in 1955, but soon found direct retailing too much hard work. In 1961, Canon appointed Bell & Howell as its US distributor. Later Canon bought out B&H's New York office and rebranded it as Canon USA. The group's retail operations in the US and Japan were later spun off into a separate, independent business, Canon Sales.
The company had also begun to diversify. In 1956, Canon launched the first Japanese-made 8mm cine camera, followed by a projector in 1958. In 1959, it launched a new camera with a zoom lens, at the time a rarity among non-professional cine cameras. But the real breakthrough was the Canonet, a low price, automatic exposure camera, introduced in 1961. It was a huge success, selling a million units within two years. The same year, Canon spent a substantial amount of money launching the Synchroreader, an unusual audio-visual copying device. That product proved a failure, but it marked Canon's first steps into the office equipment sector. Meanwhile the company introduced its first desktop calculator in 1963, the 10-key Canola 130. In 1967, a new division was established specifically to manufacture office equipment, and by 1969 business machines accounted for more than 42% of Canon's total sales. Around 30% of the company's sales alone came from its range of Panther calculators. That year the company shortened its name to Canon Inc.
In 1970, the group began establishing manufacturing plants outside Japan, first in Taiwan, followed by Germany and the US. Its biggest problem was to find a way to build copying machines without infringing the copyright of Xerox, then the world leader in that sector, with more than 600 patents relating to electrophotographic copying. As a result, Canon was forced to develop its own system, and launched the first non-Xerox commercial copier, the NP-1100, in 1970. Later models used a unique "liquid dry" system, printing with liquid toner onto plain paper. Cameras remained an integral, but ever smaller, part of the business. Mid-decade, Canon was briefly overtaken as the world's foremost camera maker by Minolta, but regained its lead with the high-profile launch in 1976 of the AE-1 SLR camera. It was succeeded by the AF-Plus autofocus model, or "Sureshot", introduced in 1979.
Meanwhile Canon's research department was exploring new ways to improve office automation. A major breakthrough came in the early 1980s with the development of a new ink printing technology which the company named Bubble Jet. The first commercial model, the Canon BJ-80 Bubble Jet printer, was launched in 1985. During the 1990s, the company ventured briefly into computers, linking up with IBM to make portable PCs with integrated printers. This line was abandoned in 1997. However, sales of the group's numerous computer peripherals soared as a result of the huge boom in computer sales.
Last full revision 3rd January 2018
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