You know that an industry is maturing when the original stalwarts tap out.

That happened in a big way when Sony announced in late July that it will sell its lithium-ion battery business to Murata Manufacturing, another Japanese company. Back in 1991, Sony released the first commercially available lithium-ion batteries, transforming the electronics market with a major improvement in energy density. That watershed moment ushered in the era of smartphones and sleek portable computers.

Elsewhere in Japan, Nikkei Asian Review reported in early August that Nissan wants to sell its electric-vehicle battery business. Back in 2007, when Nissan was developing the Leaf EV, there was no booming market for electric cars and therefore little demand to support EV battery manufacturing. Nissan decided to take the battery manufacturing process in-house and established a joint venture with NEC called Automotive Energy Supply Corporation. That company trailed only Panasonic in sales of lithium-ion batteries for cars, Nikkei reported. As the EV market scales up, Nissan may look beyond its borders for a steady supply of batteries.

These movements point to the difficulties first movers can encounter in adapting to the later stages of a market. For the pioneers in these two battery markets, there was no model to follow. They innovated battery products to suit their own needs, but later companies came in with the resources and focus to build such batteries at larger scale and lower cost. Without sufficient capital to scale their in-house production, these companies are feeling the pressure to exit the manufacturing side and leave it to the companies that can better compete in that arena.

The choice was no doubt made for profitability reasons, but it may prove a costly missed opportunity for Sony and Nissan in the long run.

“These companies moving out of manufacturing is symptomatic of struggles of Japanese manufacturing in general, but in batteries it's occurring ahead of the anticipated boom in storage and EVs,” said Ravi Manghani, director of energy storage at GTM Research. “These companies seem to be getting out right when the market is ready to take off.”

“Pursuit of optimal products”

Before we get any further, we should mention that Nissan disavows the reports about cutting off battery production -- sort of.

“The article on Nissan and its battery business that appeared in the Nikkei newspaper on August 8 is speculation and not based on any announcement by us,” wrote Josh Clifton, senior manager for corporate communications at Nissan North America, in an email Thursday. But, he added, “Nissan is committed to producing the best possible EV solutions for our customers. To that end, we continuously evaluate our business strategy in pursuit of optimal products and business structure.”

That statement stops short of saying the allegations are false; it simply says Nissan hasn’t confirmed them yet. And it suggests that, if the company determines it could produce better and cheaper EVs by purchasing batteries elsewhere, it would do it. Clifton declined to comment on that implication.

The pursuit of optimal business structures ideally motivates every company, but it has become particularly salient for these large manufacturers that maintain battery production as one of their subsidiaries.

The research and development needed to drive improvements in lithium-ion battery performance is notoriously slow and capital-intensive. American carmakers were experimenting with lithium-ion batteries for cars in the 1960s, but it took decades of science before the technology reliably met the performance needs of a vehicle, like driving more than 40 miles and avoiding spontaneous combustion. That sort of timeline doesn’t square well with the work of producing new and better cars and shipping them to customers.

Moreover, the value of producing one's own supply of batteries decreased as the industry evolved. In the early days of EVs, Nissan was figuring out how to power cars with electric drivetrains, so having the ability to tinker with both the car and the battery was useful. Additionally, this meant Nissan didn't have to rely on an outside supplier to develop the appropriate batteries; the buck stopped with the company.

EV batteries have since moved beyond the niche phase into the realm of commodity. They are mass-produced by many companies with similar specifications, and there is steady competition to push costs down. But while specialized battery makers scramble to beat each other in quality and price, Nissan's core business remains elsewhere, in building cars. It can compete better there.

Meanwhile, demand for EVs is surging past the point where it was when Nissan set up its battery factory. Keeping pace over the next five or 10 years will require additional investment of capital, and it's hard to see how Nissan could save money by beefing up its own production rather than buying cheaper batteries from a bigger supplier. Getting the costs of a battery factory off the balance sheet couldn't hurt investors, either.

Handing over the reins

A move away from battery making is more surprising from Sony, which played a leading role in bringing lithium-ion technology to market. That company’s battery unit got started in 1975. Now, Sony intends to hand over the battery business of its Sony Energy Devices Corporation to Murata by the end of March 2017. That includes factories in China and Singapore, as well as staff in battery sales and R&D. Sony said it does not, however, plan to sell Sony-branded USB batteries, alkaline batteries, button and coin batteries or mobile projectors.

The stated goal of the companies in this deal is “to increase the competitiveness and ensure the sustained growth of the battery businesses while also continuing to secure appropriate investment to achieve such competitiveness and sustained growth.”

That indicates that Sony was not in a position to continue investing in its battery unit, and was contemplating the latter’s slow decline if nothing changed.

Purchasing batteries elsewhere, on the other hand, frees up resources to concentrate more on the consumer electronics that now form the core of Sony's business. The strategic shift reveals Sony's confidence in the battery vendor landscape that has sprung up since it launched the market. Sony is saying that it doesn't have the resources to produce competitive, cost-effective lithium ion batteries, but it knows other companies that can. The training wheels have come off.

Two roads diverged

By all accounts, the battery market is on the cusp of booming. GTM Research forecasts that the U.S. energy storage market alone will grow nine times larger by 2021, to 2,081 megawatts.

Storage vendors will make a lot more money then than they do now; the salient question for manufacturers is who will control that windfall. If a highly competitive environment emerges, where a few storage supermajors destroy or absorb all the competition, then Sony and Nissan are probably doing the right thing by cutting their losses ahead of time. 

If a more diverse ecosystem evolves, where specialists can survive and prosper by producing batteries for different niche markets, then Sony and Nissan could have a chance to earn big by sticking it out. It will be a while before we know the answer.

If Nissan goes through with this pivot, it will be charting a very different course from another battery- and EV-maker, Tesla. The latter has committed itself to becoming the vertically integrated clean energy corporation of the future, supplying solar power, storage and electric transportation all under one corporate (solar) roof. Nissan, however, is a car company, not an energy company. Most of its products are still of the combustion-engine-propelled variety.

Likewise for Sony -- its customers don't much care where the energy for their products is coming from or which ocmpany made the means to store it. They want video game consoles with stellar graphics or cameras that shoot crisp photos. Sony can still fulfill those desires with another company's lithium-ion cells.

While Sony and Nissan might be feeling the crunch, this should be regarded as a positive sign for the industry battery industry: demand for good, cheap batteries has risen to the point that the original players have to step up their game or get out of the business.