Japanese Automakers Cut More Production, Further Delay Factory Restarts

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Sony Corp (6758.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) cut output at five more plants and Toyota Motor (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) further delayed restarting its Japanese assembly lines, as the country's catastrophic earthquake plays havoc with the global supply of parts and products.

Global electronics and autos companies have been hardest hit by the turmoil, but in an illustration of how the ripples are spreading, global miner Rio Tinto (RIO.L: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) (RIO.AX: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) warned the disruptions posed a threat to its expansion plans.

More than 10 days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and 10-meter tsunami struck the northeast of Japan, manufacturers are struggling to get back up to speed as factories grapple with power cuts, crippled infrastructure and a shortage of parts.

Such is Japan's position in the global supply chain that companies from Apple Inc (AAPL.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) to General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Nokia (NOK1V.HE: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) are feeling the impact.

Toyota, the world's largest automaker, said all 12 Japanese assembly plants would remain closed until at least Saturday and it was not sure when they would reopen. Production lost between March 14-26 would be about 140,000 units. Toyota had hoped to have resumed assembly on Tuesday.

Electronics giant Sony said five more of its plants, mostly in central and southern Japan, were hit by parts shortages stemming from the disaster and would close or reduce output until the end of the month.

"If the shortage of parts and materials supplied to these plants continues, we will consider necessary measures, including a temporary shift of production overseas," the maker of PlayStation games consoles said in a statement on Tuesday.

The plants make products such as digital and video cameras, televisions and microphones, Sony said.

A sixth plant in Chiba, north of Tokyo, was set to resume production on Tuesday, but it could be interrupted by rolling blackouts that are affecting some areas supplied by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) (9501.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

Including two factories only partially restarted last week, 15 of Sony's 25 Japanese plants are currently affected. It has a total of 54 plants worldwide.

TECH CHAIN VULNERABLE

Japan's grip on the global electronics supply chain is causing particular concern. It produces around a fifth of the world's computer chips and exported 7.2 trillion yen ($91.3 billion) worth of electronic parts last year, research from Mirae Asset Securities shows.

"There are a huge number of little bits of the high-tech food chain which are done nowhere but in Japan," said Sam Perry, senior investment manager of Pictet Japanese Equity Selection Fund. "Nobody else has the quality or the consistency, and in some cases the technology, to do it."

Japan dominates with the supply of LCD film and sealants for semiconductors, among other areas, Perry added.

"You simply can't do high-tech without Japan."

Fujifilm Holdings (4901.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), the largest producer of triacetyl cellulose film used in making LCD panels, said its main factories are all west of Tokyo and were not directly affected. It has other facilities in northeast Japan, but said any disruptions were unlikely to damage its earnings.

Konica Minolta (4902.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), the second-largest maker of the LCD film, said its three factories in the Tokyo region had been affected by the rolling power cuts. Company officials declined to specify what these factories produce.

Camera and copier maker Canon Inc (7751.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), which has suspended all its domestic camera production until at least Thursday, said a lack of gasoline was affecting distribution and stopping staff getting to work in areas such as the island of Kyushu, where train services are minimal.

Nikon (7731.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), which makes cameras and precision equipment, said it expects to resume production at all its north Japan plants by the end of March, but warned power cuts and shortages of parts could make a return to full production difficult.

Renesas Electronics Corp (6723.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), the world's No.5 chipmaker, restarted operations on Saturday at a semiconductor plant in Yamagata prefecture, in northwest Japan, a company spokeswoman said on Tuesday -- leaving output suspended at six of the firm's 22 factories in Japan.

RIPPLES SPREAD

Rio Tinto, the world's No.2 iron ore miner behind Brazil's Vale (VALE5.SA: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), is worried the disaster will disrupt supplies of mining equipment, tires and parts, which could set back some of its expansion plans.

"The impact of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have been many and diverse, and they affect us," Rio's head of iron ore Sam Walsh told an industry conference in Perth.

"Some steel mills have suspended operations and suppliers of heavy equipment, such as Hitachi, have been impacted," he said.

Hitachi Construction (6305.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), Japan's No.2 maker of earthmoving equipment, said five plants in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo, closed after the quake. Three have partially reopened, but there is no timetable for re-opening the others.

Tsunami damage to the nearest port means Hitachi is shipping some products from Yokohama, near Tokyo.

Car makers are also struggling to get production lines restarted.

On top of Toyota's delays, Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) (HMC.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) was also extending its production suspension until Sunday from Thursday. A fifth of Honda's leading Japan-based suppliers affected by the earthquake have said it will take "more than a week" to recover, Honda said late on Monday.

In a sign of some return to normality, Japan's top three steelmakers reported some progress in restoring production.

Nippon Steel Corp (5401.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) said output at the three blast furnaces at its mainstay plant in eastern Japan had recovered to pre-quake levels, while JFE Steel Corp (5411.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) said two blast furnaces at its 10 million tonnes-a-year plant near Tokyo were now operating normally.

(Additional reporting by Junko Fujita and Nathan Layne in TOKYO and James Regan in PERTH; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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