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

Awa Paper

Paper technology revolutionizing the field of functional materials


5 months ago

Yasuhiro Miki, President of Awa Paper & Technological Company, Inc.
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Yasuhiro Miki

President of Awa Paper & Technological Company, Inc.

Based in Tokushima, an area surrounded by rivers and mountains, Awa Paper is blessed with an abundance of the raw materials necessary for continued success in the papermaking industry. The firm mainly serves the automotive and the water treatment industries, making significant efforts in developing membrane support fabric for Reverse Osmosis membranes in desalination plants. As water scarcity is becoming a more significant issue all over the world, Awa Paper is emphasizing the recyclability and reusability of water, breathing new life into the sector.

Traditional Japanese paper, washi, has a history of over 2,000 years, and Awa was the first to mechanise its production in Tokushima Prefecture. What is your take on Japanese monozukuri and the blend of tradition and modern technology that underpins your products?

First, I would like to highlight the roots of our company and its history, which are the foundations of where we are now. As you mentioned, we started by developing raw materials for Japanese washi paper, such as the Mulberry and Mitsumata plants. In those days, before washi started being mass produced and became an easily accessible commodity, it was very valuable and hard to get as it was all handmade.

Also, why are our roots in Tokushima? This area is blessed; we are surrounded by beautiful mountains and rivers, so we have access to all the raw materials needed for washi manufacturing. We started off by introducing the machinery to mass produce paper, basically exalting washi’s best features, and bringing them to a new level of monozukuri. That being said, something was lost in the long run: once you produce more and lower the cost, and make the product easily accessible, you lose the preciousness of handmade washi. On the other hand, we can maintain high quality standards because our machinery can guarantee high quality levels.

 

We are living in the era of Industry 4.0, characterised by the fusion of the physical and digital worlds in the context of production, with robotics, Big Data, and AI increasingly being integrated into production lines. How are you adapting to this revolution in manufacturing?

We have gone a long way throughout our over 100-year history, during which we have always responded to customers’ needs. As time goes by, people’s needs change – people 100 years ago are totally different from what they are today. What remains true for our company is that it is still rooted in Tokushima’s excellence. We have access to the best raw materials and have the capacity to exalt their best features, and there is a huge range of different raw materials available all year round. This allows us to achieve even more commercial success in the various applications emerging from our paper manufacturing methods. We have walked a long path and have been blessed in working with many companies both nearby, in Tokushima and throughout the island of Shikoku, as well as nationwide, and now abroad as well.

People’s various needs translate into different business opportunities. We are in a privileged position because throughout our history, we have had contact with many companies possessing technologies and techniques that could cater to our customers’ expectations, such as companies specialised in AI, to give a recent example. Collaborating with them to satisfy customer needs has helped us become what we are today.

In the post-war period, we experienced the so-called “Japanese economic miracle”, and Japan was a fertile ground for many successful companies. We were lucky enough to position ourselves and conduct business here. However, today we are at a challenging juncture. For many Japanese companies, not just us, it is not enough to be present domestically, but we must look to foreign markets. Of course, customers’ needs, not only in Japan but also overseas, are changing. A lot of things are happening now, and we must respond to these needs and forge new alliances. Alliances are the only way that we can promote ourselves and deliver our best features to global customers.

Digital transformation (DX) allows for connecting several dots together. The importance of digital tools as marketing tools, for example, has increased; a realisation that people came to out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the use of the virtual medium escalated, replacing face-to-face contact. In that sense, many more business opportunities have emerged. There are so many things that are happening in the world. Now that digitalisation is occurring, new chances to expand our business are presenting themselves.

 

In the next fifteen years, one in three Japanese people will be over the age of sixty-five. This is creating challenges in terms of recruitment, as well as shrinking domestic demand. To what extent have you had to look overseas for more business opportunities, and what recruitment strategy are you adopting?

Some young recruits decided they wanted a change in lifestyle and moved away from bigger cities back to rural areas. Tokushima prefecture is on the island of Shikoku, and is distant from the main island, Honshu, and historically there has been a trend of people who graduate locally going to bigger towns. But conversely, some people are looking to settle down in Tokushima’s more relaxed environment. The adoption of remote working, accelerated by the pandemic, has also played its part. Because the work does not have to be confined to the office, as people can work from anywhere, new workers do not necessarily need to be recruited locally in Tokushima. Over the past year, we have seen this change. We see a 50-50 split between people who want to move to Tokyo to advance their careers, and some, especially those with children, want to move back to Tokushima, as it is safer, cheaper, and more relaxed.

The goal is to reach a level where people do not need to be physically tied to one place. The number one rule that we adopt with recruits is that the person should show interest, understand the company’s philosophies and policies, and if that person has a natural willingness and inclination to work for us, they do not necessarily have to be in a specific place. Also, when our staff is recruited locally, we try to eliminate intermediary recruitment agencies, and tend to hire people directly to simplify the process.

To answer the first question, again, the pandemic has been a game changer. There has been more emphasis on digital tools – with the possibility of connecting Tokushima, Tokyo, or anywhere in the world with one simple click. We can spread our company beyond what we have been capable of so far, meaning that our company’s fame and network are growing. Even more business opportunities have emerged with the power of the internet without the need to conduct business trips abroad. Even high-level trade talks between the US, Europe, and China are conducted via the internet.

 

Your company has diversified beyond paper manufacturing and into functional materials. You have products for many industries, including electronics, the environmental field, water and gas treatment, aviation, energy, and the medical field. What are your best-selling products, and which have the most potential looking to the future?

Our product line-up for automobiles, such as carbon composite CFRP, base paper for battery separators and base paper for sliding materials, accounts for most of our sales. However, vehicle electrification is becoming more widespread, and the number of combustion engine vehicles is decreasing. For that reason, we are not relying on this industry because engine-related products will not be in high demand in the future. Of course, we are looking at what is happening in the industry and what could be applicable, but as of now, we are seeing a slight decrease.

Water treatment-related products are number two in the company line-up. They occupy a solid place n our business, both in terms of revenue and from the perspective of future development. It is a growing industry, and there are many things happening now, so we are investing in this sector. Our water discharge, water treatment and water purification-related products are in high demand now. For example, M-fine is a filter medium for liquid filtration, a submerged membrane unit for MBR (Membrane Bioreactor). The support paper lies under the filter, but it still must be introduced with the filter medium itself.

 

We interviewed you four years ago, and you spoke about the need to establish yourself more firmly in the water and wastewater treatment business. At the time, you were selling membrane backing paper, and you wanted to develop it further notwithstanding its success. You now have the MBR for wastewater treatment. Could you tell us how the roll-out of these kinds of products has progressed, and what remains to be done?

MBR is the combination of a membrane process with a biological wastewater treatment process. We manufacture the submerged membrane unit, which is integrated with a biological process. The needs of different kinds of industries require different kinds of liquid filtration – it does not have to be water, but can be applied to breweries, electric discharge machines, filter media, dry cleaning, and membrane support fabrics, for example. Awa Paper can produce anything related to water treatment in different industries that require differently adjusted water filtration systems. For example, the submerged membrane unit for MBR is just one part of this and has already achieved commercial success. However, with slight adjustments, the support paper can be adapted to different filtration processes, therefore to the needs of different customers and industries. Hence our emphasis on our liquid processing line-up, which can count on many techniques in liquid filtration and processing.

Excluding drinking water and the production of beverages, in the context of wastewater treatment, we are emphasising the recyclability and reusability of water, with new initiatives being applied to what is truthfully an old business. With adjustments in filtration processes, we can reach new, excellent filtration levels applicable to different industries.



Your reverse osmotic membranes’ main application is seawater desalination. One of the biggest challenges for filtration companies is filtering seawater to ensure access to safe drinking water for all. How much progress has been made towards this goal?

In the future, it may be that seawater treatment facilities become our customers, but that is not the case for the time being. Nevertheless, the challenge of making seawater drinkable is not just about desalination - removing salt from seawater - but also removing other chemical components. Seawater treatment companies need to do a lot of things to reach that level, which has not been attained yet.

 

Your company is steeped in history: you were the first to develop a special paper from non-wood fibres called cotton linters, and have successfully commercialised other types of paper, such as non-combustible paper in the 1970s. What are you currently focusing on in terms of R&D?

R&D is obviously crucial for our company because without it, we cannot come up with different solutions or commercialise new products. But it takes an immense amount of effort and financial resources, and for this reason, we often rely on working with other companies. The key ingredients of R&D are people and money, and we can tap into these resources by cooperating with other companies. We can escalate the R&D process by co-creating with other companies, such as raw material providers, end users, and clients; we have different examples of co-creation relationships with different kinds of parties, so we can come up with various types of R&D initiatives from our side. Our tendency is to cooperate with other companies so we can develop better solutions.

Our partners are mostly domestic because the raw materials we work with can be found here in Japan, but we also have many customers outside of Japan. For example, polyester paper is a combined product made with Teijin fibre – Teijin is the name of the company producing the fibre – and serves as an alloy membrane. Polyethylene filters are created by combining Teijin fibres’ strong features and our outstanding know-how. We and Teijin are cooperating to create a better product and we have the number one share in the alloy membrane market.

It is a cooperative type of business, with at least three involved parties. Teijin with its fibre, us with our paper, and the end-user evaluation company in the United States, evaluates the product to see what usage applications it can have. They get back to us about whether applications can be found, and we can come up with better results or solutions, therefore a better filtration system. Teijin is not the only company we work with, there are many other examples. Under the umbrella of the polyester fibre, we can co-create with many companies to come up with better results.

Our goal when it comes to the submerged membrane for MBR, which is one of our product offerings for the solid-liquid separation process, is to develop our business potential. The wastewater treatment market is very attractive for us because there are various kinds of wastewater to which our filtration technologies can be adapted with the excellence we have reached in paper filtration systems. We provide better features and solutions to companies that want to improve effluent quality in their wastewater facilities.

We are working on a wastewater recycling system called meguri, a closed-loop sewage treatment system, meaning that the sewage is treated with M-fine filtration technologies and the high-quality permeated water goes through a recycling process and is reused for flushing a toilet, water sprinkling in gardens, or watering in agriculture. Plus, there are efforts to make it run on solar panels, meaning that on top of not needing to be connected to water pipes, it does not need to be connected to the power grid.

 

Thermal management is a major issue, whereby the heat accumulated on the inside of products needs to be transferred to the outside. Your product CARMIX protects electronics by dissipating heat. Could you tell us about it and its applications?

As you mentioned, CARMIX serves the purpose of heat dissipation, protecting electronics from excessive heat accumulation. But it is more than that. We are focusing our efforts on two areas: thermal and electronic related products. Several products that we already have in our line-up serve as heat dissipators, or heat protective products related to graphite or carbon fibre, which are embedded into the protective sheets inside cars. This is a growing trend right now, given the changes in the automotive industry.

 

One of the biggest challenges is balancing the structural integrity of the CFRP while still being able to provide thermal dissipation qualities. How do you do that?

We are not dealing with complex CFRP that needs to be adjusted the way that Toray does; this type is required by certain customers, for example in the aerospace field. We are dealing with short cut fibre, which does not require as many adjustments to ensure the CFRP’s strength. Short cut carbon fibre can be used as recycled carbon fibre. It can also be embedded in paper, like graphite, but if you input too much of it, you can also lose strength, so a balanced approach is required.

 

You have been present in Thailand since 1996, and established your production facility in Shanghai, China in 2003. Moving forward, which new locations do you envision establishing your business in to strengthen your overseas presence?

Sales-wise, we have worldwide ambitions. When it comes to production sites, the picture is more complex because countries have different regulations and government policies, especially when it comes to carbon neutrality targets. For example, a deadline for carbon neutrality has already been set here in Japan, so companies are working towards becoming 100% carbon neutral. This will impact energy accessibility, which is important because our production requires a lot of energy. For that reason, Japan may not be considered an ideal location for a mother factory for major manufacturers. Palm biodiesel is recyclable, so for that reason, our location in Thailand is already running on palm oil. In comparison, we use crude oil and gas to run our plants in Japan.

We would like to develop the European market. Environmental regulations in Europe are becoming more robust, and we see this as a chance to enter the market with our environment-related products. The US is obviously a big market, and it could be a good thing to mitigate our risk by localising our business more firmly in the context of the global supply chain, and eventually venturing into production in the US.

That would have to be in close cooperation with reliable customers, but it does not have to be in the US or Europe, it could be in India, China, Korea – you name it. As long as potential partners share our values and understand how things should be done from a local perspective, we can establish good relations.

 

Imagine we come back five years from now and interview you again: what would you like to tell us? What dreams or goals would you like to have accomplished by then?

There are two things I would like to mention. The first is contributing to environment-related initiatives through our company’s activities. We would like to expand the domain of filtration treatment more, especially water filtration, both for wastewater and the purification of natural water. We see that customers have many needs in this field. Also, the processing technologies we have can make a positive contribution to the world too.

The second field is engine related. No matter how many transformations are taking place with vehicle electrification, we would like to maintain firm ground as a company producing parts that are still needed for engines, notwithstanding the growing drive for electrification.

We spoke previously about products that can be divided into the categories of thermal and electronic related treatment. While ensuring heat dissipation features, you must not forget about materials’ electric conductivity. For example, the process of insulation is crucial when it comes to battery separators. It is not just enough to introduce the heat shut off function to protect the battery – here you could say that a better solution would be to introduce a thicker layer of iron. But it is not just that, it is also about insulation, protecting and expanding the lifecycle of the lithium-ion battery with better features, better filtration, and better protection.


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