Saturday, Jul 2, 2022
Industry & Trade | Asia-Pacific | Japan


Leading car parts supplier also pioneering modularization in factory automation

1 year ago

Shigemitsu Kondo, President of Kondo Seisakusho
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Shigemitsu Kondo

President of Kondo Seisakusho

Aside from supplying auto parts for automobile manufacturers, Kondo Seisakusho develops factory automation (FA) and robotics equipment for a wide range of industries, including automotives, food, medical and semiconductors. As a trusted supplier of both parts and robotics equipment to many companies, including several Toyota Group companies, Kondo Seisakusho adopts Toyota’s monozukuri (Japanese craftsmanship) and kaizen (continuous improvement) approach to manufacturing. This approach ensures products of the highest quality and performance – which are built with speed, accuracy and efficiency at Kondo’s state-of-the-art, FA-equipped ‘smart’ factories in Japan, Thailand and the US. We speak with president, Shigemitsu Kondo, to learn more about the company’s rich history, its current technology and plans for the future.

I would like to start out by asking you about the Japanese manufacturing spirit and philosophy. We know that in Japan there is a relentless quest to perfect a product and extreme attention to detail, which is called monozukuri. But we also know that monozukuri is more than just craftsmanship nowadays. It now involves responding to the different customer requests, and also providing added value in the products that the customers request. Can you give us your interpretation of monozukuri, what is the essence of monozukuri in your own opinion?

In our opinion, the essence of monozukuri is to think from the customer’s point of view. Our company, throughout its history, has provided machines required in each period some of which we are no longer making, for example, machines to produce powders and ones to produce udon noodles. These machines were produced after WWII when people had a difficult time getting basic food. We had the vision to create a machine that provides food to people easily. Also, after our founder was hospitalized with lung disease, he produced an artificial pneumothorax machine following a request from a doctor and with this machine he received an award from Japanese Patent Office. Our slogan “Embodying customer's various needs” is made from those stories and it includes our vision to think from the customer’s point of view and to meet customer’s requirements through our technology as I mentioned.


If you look at Japanese manufacturing over the last few decades, we know there has been tough regional competition from the likes of manufacturers in South Korea, Taiwan and China who can take advantage of economies of scale to produce products at a lower price. What do you think Japanese SMEs, chuken kigyos such as yourself, should do to overcome this competition?

For sustainable business we can reduce the cost and enhance the value. I think the latter is significant. Of course, we should make every effort to reduce the cost, however, there are limitless needs existing in the world. Therefore, the idea to keep providing the value that the customer needs has become crucial for a sustainable business. To fulfill this requirement there are two vital points. Be considerate to the essence of customer’s needs and enhance the technology level to embody the needs. We believe that responding to the detailed needs is a job that SME companies, which can move flexibly, are good at.


If you look at Japanese manufacturing in the 70s and 80s, we know that it was at the forefront for consumer electronics with companies such as Sony and Panasonic, Japan was a real leader back then. Now we are going to see smart factories with in-built maintenance, 3D-printing capabilities, with the ability to adapt the production methods by using Big Data, 5G and IoT. Can you tell us what role do you think Japan will play in this Industry 4.0 movement, regarding factory automation, which is revolutionizing the industry around the world?

Matching the needs of actual factories with new technologies and business models brings with it a lot of problems. Since factory structures are often not the same in many aspects, there are a myriad of issues that must be overcome in order to introduce new technology and one must figure out if such technology matches the needs of each factory.

Our company puts a lot of effort into our R&D in order to adopt new technology like AI, though there are numerous problems to solve in order to achieve a level which the field actually demands. We communicate with our customers directly on the actual site and solve problems on a case-by-case basis. If we don’t do so, then what we are doing is really chasing a ‘pie in the sky’ vision, we therefore must pursue the reality with the understanding that it will work out at some point. It is said that Japan's strength lies in its ability to improve quality and reduce waste through daily kaizen, and I think it is important to increase the speed of this process.


When we spoke to Dr. Inaba from Fanuc he had something really interesting to say about robotics and factory automation (FA). He told us how factory automation gets bad press, as in people say that robotics is replacing humans in the workplace. He, however, believes that FA compliments human labor and is a means to create more human resources for other areas such as sales and R&D and thus those people are upskilled. Can you give us your take on the introduction of robotics on the factory line, and especially for a country like Japan where there is a shrinking demography?

I agree with Dr. Inaba from FANUC. Automating existing work leads companies to challenge themselves for new levels of added value. Our founder had a joke that he wanted to “make a factory which can produce while we play mahjong”. He had a vision that by using robots he could make his life more fun, and it would free up time for him to spend time doing things he enjoyed.


Your company is involved in roughly four sectors: 1) Factory automation with multi-axis robots and peripheral devices such as stockers 2) Automation components such as pneumatic grippers, automatic tool changers, and robotic accessory products 3) R&D for Smart Factories 4) Automobile parts. Could you give us a brief overview of your main products, and which of them is your best-selling?

Our main product is factory automation and robotic accessories, though the automobile parts – the basis of our company development – is a crucial sector too. To survive in the fiercely competitive automotive parts industry we put a lot of efforts into improving our competitiveness. This includes factory automation of manufacturing processes, the adoption of smart factories that aim to automate quality and management tasks, and the development of modularized robotics tools to make FA design easier. Our company’s development corresponds to the developments of our own automobile parts division.


Can you give us an insight into some of the applications your clients are using your products for? Is it for high mix, low volume or mass production? What kind of companies are using your pneumatic grippers or automated systems?

Our policy is “Embodying customer's various needs”. We choose to face various customer’s needs and approach each demand sincerely. We don’t develop products to a specific target as in a seeds-oriented approach. Through such continuous efforts we have provided over 1000 different types of robotics accessories including pneumatic grippers. Our robotics accessories are modularized, so can be utilized in various ways in the field depending on the customer's idea. Some examples include: the food industry, the medical industry, semiconductor manufacturers, and most of all, automobile manufacturers. Although we mainly sell our products through trading companies, which is a Japanese business practice, we do not have a detailed grasp of how many industries are using our products. Through direct communication with users, such as requests and inquiries, we often learn of surprising ways in which our products are used.


You originally started as a car parts manufacturer, and out of necessity you created these factory automated solutions. Could you tell us more about the synergies that you have been able to create in your modern product line up?

To improve the competitiveness of our automobile parts business we have been striving to achieve quality assurance, productivity, stability, and speed through automation. The fact that we can automate the factory ourselves means that the factory automation designers and production managers can talk to each other more openly than they can to outsiders.  It is a great advantage to be able to present all the problems we have openly and use the technology we have. In order to develop more synergies, it is crucial to know how much our automobile parts section could have an uncompromising approach on monozukuri.

We are lucky that we are in Aichi prefecture, where manufacturing industries such as Toyota are thriving. Japanese manufacturers’ monozukuri spirit is of a very high value and in order to meet their needs both the automobile parts and robotic components sector have learned a lot. In addition, there is no end to what we need to learn because the spirit and common sense of manufacturing differs from customer to customer, industry to industry, and region to region. There is no end to what we have to study, and we are always learning.

We are also able to share the new knowledge we gain from our customers' needs, such as manufacturing concepts and technologies. By feeding it back to our own business we allow ourselves the opportunity to make further improvements in our company.


Last year you began producing the rotary joint for parallel link robots which prevents kinking and works in tandem with the pipes in the robots. Can you tell us more about this product, and also are there any other new products that you would like to share with our international audience?

When the robot is in operation the wires and pipes attached to the robot are often caught on objects or damaged when the attached wires slide against each other, the rotary joint prevents these failures. In another case, a workpiece may exist in a position that is slightly off from the position the robot expects by the teaching process and if the robot has to be taught every time it deviates, we couldn’t call it automated. A Compliance Device is a tool that physically compensates for the difference. In addition to material handling, we are a robotic accessories manufacturer that provides solutions for customers to use robots more comfortably, such as an automatic tool changer that enables the replacement of robot end-effector arm tooling.


Japan is famous as a country that puts a high percentage towards R&D, we know that 3% of their GDP annually is invested into R&D. We know that you developed the world’s smallest and lightest pneumatic gripper. Can you tell us more about your R&D strategy? Are there any particular products that you are working on right now that you would like to share?

We are an SME so we have to reduce any extra expense we spend. We therefore try to develop products based on existing customer needs and sell our products right after the development. This enhances the efficiency and productivity in our R&D division.

Our catalogue represents the accumulation of our efforts to meet our customer’s needs through our R&D. As a result of this we now have over 1000 different types of robotics tools which make robots convenient and easy to use, including handling tools. It took a very long time to come to this point and it is the fruit of our division's hard work and accumulation of knowledge. We will continue to improve ourselves to become a company that people say: "If you want a handling tool, just ask Kondo”.


If you look at Japanese companies, we know they are increasingly engaging in co-creation processes and looking to find partners outside of Japanese borders. Two years ago Japanese FA giant, Fanuc, partnered with Rockwell Automation in the US to produce new automotive systems and educate American workers on such systems. Are you interested in such co-creating experiences and finding partners overseas?

Our advantage is we are an SME who can move flexibly. If we co-create with overseas companies on a large-scale project, we may lose sight of our own strengths. Therefore, we would like to continue to engage in small- to medium-scale collaborations, just as we are currently doing so with local universities and various companies to improve our development activities and technology level.


If we look at global growth for factory automation, we know that it is going to grow by 10% annually and by 2025 it will reach $370 million. There is a lot of potential in this market because it reduces human labor and improves quality on the production line. As a company involved in factory automation, what is your mid-term strategy and how will you take advantage of this growth in FA?

I believe that the FA market will continue to grow but at the same time we need to establish a maintenance system for the existing FA systems already provided. Our main customers for FA systems are in the automobile industry, which has a long history for FA so most of them have their own maintenance team. However, as the expectation toward FA increases, we predict that the number of customers who do not have a maintenance team will increase as well.

When the FA system stops for some reason, most customers want to have it fixed immediately.  If the system is a standardized item like an automobile, it can be handled immediately by a maintenance manual or a maintenance shop. However, as FA systems become increasingly customized and no two FA systems are alike, each one will require a different response to fixing it. If an engineer does not understand the system well, it will take a long time to recover, this fact may hinder trust in the FA system. In other words, the more we can achieve to feel secure by improving the maintenance system, the faster we can widely adopt FA to the world. We would like to contribute to the development of FA by improving the versatility and maintainability of robot tools through modularization.


Regarding the maintenance, the more robotics become used outside of the automobile industry, the more the need for maintenance will be required for customers who are not used to them, as you say. Do you envision partnering up with a company to aid these customers with maintenance or would this be something you would do by yourself?

From the customer's point of view, I believe that having a partner close by who can immediately restore the system when a problem arises would give a higher sense of security to the customer. We also have factories overseas, so we have experienced the difficulty of maintaining maintenance staff overseas. Therefore, it would be difficult for us to establish a support system that can respond immediately to all regions on our own. We want to consider the solution including partnerships with other companies.


You expanded beyond the Japanese borders in 1997 when you opened up in Thailand, the US, and then China in 2010. Can you tell us more about the benefits of this integrated production and sales approach overseas?

In the fierce competition in which it is not easy to survive, we are fortunate to have been able to expand the company and establish factories in Thailand, the United States, and China as manufacturing bases for automotive parts. Because the automotive parts industry is less prone to fluctuations due to economic conditions than the FA industry, a stable business foundation can be expected. It would have been difficult to have a factory overseas with only the FA business which is easily influenced by the economy and is unstable. Now, our business is based on the automotive parts production and sales with a factory which can support FA systems overseas via factory engineers and staff.


As we speak with tier one auto parts manufacturers we hear about the expansion and demand for Japanese products, especially in the U.S, but also in Asia. In places like India, we see there is a huge demand for Japanese auto parts and companies like Tata are always looking for partnerships to meet this. Are there other places on your radar where you are looking to expand your operations to?

Honestly, we don’t have enough human resources to cover any more countries yet. FA, which is achieved by combining various technologies, requires engineers who understand it and takes a lot of time and effort to train such engineers. We are getting some requests from our clients who supply to other regions as well, but at this moment we are focusing on China, the US and Thailand, and trying to grow our footprint and brand in these countries.


We have one last question to get to know your personal ambitions. This is a family business. Imagine we come back in 2-3 years to interview you again. What would you have liked to have accomplished by then, what are your dreams for your company within this company?

Although the approach may be different, the common dream of all board members, who are family members, is the realization of our company motto: "enriching the lives of all”. This means that through the sustainable development of the company, all people involved in the company will be filled with happiness. We believe that the realization of needs is the realization of happiness and would like to sustain and flourish this realization by taking advantage of being an SME that can move flexibly and continually face the needs within and outside the company.

With this in mind, I would like to focus once again on going back to basics. We have knowledge and experience with the FA business and the robotic tool business which we have accumulated in the process of responding to customer requests and this has led to our efficient production line which the automotive division has refined through a series of kaizen efforts. We would like to combine this accumulation process to build our factory and exhibit it as an ideal robotic production factory and smart factory in the future.  I might not be able to achieve this dream in three years from now, but I am sure that this initiative will help our company grow stronger.




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