Wednesday, May 18, 2022
Industry & Trade | Asia-Pacific | Japan

Japan

The screws and bolts supporting the adoption of the newest technologies.


6 months ago

Yoshiyuki Shindo, President and CEO of Topura Co., Ltd.
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Yoshiyuki Shindo

President and CEO of Topura Co., Ltd.

Topura is leading fastener manufacturing company, supplying mainly for the automotive, electrical, and marine industries. In this interview, we learn how they are adopting DX (Digital transformation) to ensure the highest quality with their QCTOP Topura original system for production and in-process inspection, as well as catering to the EV market with new products such as the Double Moulded Bolt, a resin moulded bolt with sealing performance for water and air proofing.

In the last few decades, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturers in places like China, South Korea, or Taiwan that have replicated the Japanese monozukuri process but with a lower labor cost. They create products that are of lower quality and a higher rate of defects. So, we still see some Japanese firms maintaining their global leadership status, especially in B2B markets such as complex and precise components and niche fields characterised by high-mix-low-volume production. In your opinion, why have Japanese firms managed to maintain their global leadership status in this respect despite the stiff regional competition?

There are many reasons for Japanese companies’ competitiveness and global leadership, but let me try to explain from a manufacturing technology point of view. Japan’s production and manufacturing technology relates to experience, coordination skills, and improvement. When you purchase a car in United States, you would choose from the dealer's stock, but in Japan, you would look at the options at the dealer then order the exact car that you want. The producer has to assemble the exact product based on the customer's needs. Here we notice that one of the important requirements for monozukuri is timing which means if there is no need, there is no production. Only the necessary products are produced. It is called the just-in-time (JIT) production concept where the technology is used to improve productivity by coordinating the machines, man, materials, and information. You will have many improvement points when you try to challenge JIT production because the essence of this production is to shorten the lead time and have a flow on the process. Shortening the lead time means preventing stagnation of products and information. Having a flow on the process means producing products at the same speed as customer's tact time and one by one in their sequence with necessary manpower. To achieve this, optimum coordination among the equipment, man, materials, and information is required. Strong willingness to achieve through continuous improvement is required to be competitive, so other countries cannot catch up. Besides Japan's quality that attracts overseas customers and users, it is the monozukuri spirit that pursues usability, functionality, and beauty. Most Japanese firms are very loyal to their customers, and they are very honest in abiding by rules and standards. The Japanese monozukuri spirit and high-quality products are strongly related to our national character. I believe that the uncompromising attitude of Japanese monozukuri is also the key to the revival of Japanese manufacturing. Such character will not be defeated easily, even if skills could be replaced with digital knowledge. The reason why emerging countries have caught up is that times have changed. There is a shift from analog to digital, and the manufacturing design method has changed from 2D to 3D. These changes have made it possible to replace the skill or craftsmanship. Also, due to the evolution of machines, robots, cameras, and technologies, it has become possible for anybody with a certain level of capital to produce a large quantity of quality products. Emerging countries in the global competition have probably made it due to this reason, but Japanese coordination skills, manufacturing technology, and their honest attitude toward their product and quality for the customers won’t be easily overcome.

 

In the Japanese kaizen philosophy of constant and continuous improvement, the human element remains very important.  Japan may not be the only advanced society ageing at a rapid rate, but it is at the forefront of this global trend. In the next 15 years, by 2035, one out of three Japanese people are expected to be 65 or older, which poses two main problems from a manufacturing standpoint. First is the labour crisis in which there are fewer and fewer young talented graduates to replace experienced workers and pass on the know-how to the next generation. Secondly, there is a shrinking in the domestic market, meaning fewer consumers and companies. Can you tell us what challenges Japan’s demographic shift has brought to your company, and how you plan to overcome these challenges?

Having veteran operators for an equipment industry like us is favorable because we will not have a production problem due to the labor shortage in the short term. However, even if the increased labor costs could be covered by productivity improvement, it would be necessary to work on age structure issues including human resource system reforms, especially for the difficulty of young personnel recruitment. I think the challenge will be how we can keep our vitality to expand our sales and develop new products in order to be an attractive company. We are working hard to increase our sales, and expansion is an essential aspect that we need to work on. Strategic Business Unit (SBU) is a project that our mid-career employees are working on to accelerate our activity and introduce new points of view. In addition, it is necessary to further promote equipment improvement and not rely on our operators' technical experience or the technical skills of our skilled laborers to reduce our heavy-duty work. We also need to increase our number of female employees, and develop a training system. We want to build on equipment improvement and not rely on manpower as much as possible.

 

As much as digital technologies and digital transformation like automation, robotics, and equipment improvement threaten the human element in manufacturing, DX is inevitable. We are now in this fourth industrial revolution or Society 4.0, where we are seeing the rise of mainstream integration of new DX technologies like IoT, big data, and AI all over Japan and the world.  Can you tell us how are you implementing DX technologies?

It will be great to have a system that shows abnormal digital signals from our production equipment or dies and jigs to prevent problems in advance. An improvement in preventive technology will be valuable. You might not be able to imagine, but we have more indirect employees than direct employees. The production of bolts certainly requires skill and technology. However, we also need to check the quality because sometimes there are defects that even the machines cannot catch. For instance, when a very tiny scratch passes through automotive inspection for machinery, we will have to do a visual inspection and sorting. It will be remarkable if we can eliminate any kind of defect and catch it during the daily production process. The movement for the direct portion is constant and can be easily monitored, whereas sometimes for the indirect portion, unusual movements can make it difficult for us to identify how many people are necessary for the process. So, I think a monitoring system that can show us the efficiency would be ideal.

I don't know if we can call it DX, but we have introduced QCTOP (Topura original system). It is a quality system not only for production and inspection, but also for in-process inspection where numerical entries are registered as digital data, manpower is reduced, and human error is prevented. This management trend is conducive, and we're using it right now.

In the production department for an example, Andon, a kind of a signal, is replaced with a monitor, though no fixed schedule is established yet to grasp operating status of equipment remotely. We should seriously consider how we can utilise AI and DX and try to promptly install DX as much as possible.

 

Your product lines include personalized screws and bolts for a number of industrial applications, for the automotive sector, motorcycles, PCs, TVs, washing machines, and other kinds of electronic appliances. Can you walk us through your history? How did your evolution take place?

Our first main customers were for electric appliances; then around the mid-60s, the automotive industry became our major client. Currently, we are supplying our products to three different industries which are automotive, electrical, and marine. The electrification of automobiles is in progress, and regarding fuel cells, the light electric manufacturers will enter the automotive industry or cooperate with automotive manufacturers. Until now, tapping screws and machine screws have been the main types of screws used in light-electric appliances, but bolts will also be used and required for EVs soon. The competition will intensify, but we might just propose our know-how and showcase our experience with automotive manufacturers for light electric appliances. I think that this will be a business opportunity for us too. Speaking of business opportunity, let me introduce our latest developed product which is suitable for EV fuel cells.



Double Moulded Bolt


The Double Moulded Bolt is a resin moulded bolt with sealing performance such as waterproofing and air proofing. From a while ago, some screws claim to have sealing performance and have resin integrally moulded on the bolt head. However, when bolts are tightened, most of them do not actually have a sealing performance due to cracks or deformation of the resin. Customers were looking for bolts that have a real sealing performance which was the reason why we started developing this product. We examined the structure to solve the current problem and came up with the idea of using two different types of resins. Because we used different resins, we named it the double moulded bolt. The selection of resin has been completed and the performance of the prototype is good, but this product is still under development. Currently, we specialize in prototyping screws to the size that will be used in electric vehicles as our customers have requested. Comparing electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles with conventional gas vehicles, the electronic system and fuel cells have more places that require waterproofing, so we think we can sell this product in the future.

 

There are incredible changes in the automotive field driven by environmental regulations such as hybrid cars, EVs, and FCVs, we are also seeing a change in materials. Even for combustion engine cars, carmakers must reduce the weight of the vehicles; to that end, there is a decrease in the consumption of heavy metals like steel and iron, and an increase in lightweight materials, including CFRP and magnesium. How are these changes in material demands impacting your business?

The demand for weight reduction of components will increase, and carbon-free components should be required in the near future. As a global impact, electrification and carbon-neutral will happen in a short time at high speed, and on a very large scale. Fortunately, we have products for weight reduction such as Strontite, aluminium bolts, titanium bolts, etc., and we want to promote them by understanding our customers’ needs and market trends.


Strontite


Strontite has been developed along with the weight reduction of automobiles. Since the thick steel plate is gradually being replaced by thin plates with higher tension due to weight reduction, customers faced a problem of existing screws threads that were damaged by the hardness of the steel plate during tightening. This phenomenon has become more prominent; therefore, Strontite was developed as a screw that can be tightened on super high-strength steel sheets such as 780 MPa and 980 MPa. We optimized the surface hardness of the screw for tightening to super high-tensile steel sheets and included the thread shape to ensure the holding power without damaging the threads. In addition, by optimizing the shape and the taper angle of the screw end, misalignment is prevented, and stable fastening became possible with reliable insertability.  Strontite is classified as a self-tapping screw that fastens by forming internal threads in a pilot hole. It is used to attach a cover to a seat frame made of a super high-tensile steel plate.

By the way, our Carbon Neutral target is a 50% reduction by 2030, the target of NHK Spring group companies. For CO2 reduction, Topura has been working on 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) activities and has installed solar panels here for self-procuring clean electricity even partially. We need to work on aggressively to promote the electrification of our existing equipment (heading, rolling and heat treatment) after this. Heat treatment equipment requires a huge amount of electricity, and the amount of CO2 emission will increase compared to using current fuel. At this moment, we feel the hurdle of a 50% reduction by 2030 is very high, and we probably have to purchase electricity made from renewable energy to reach our target.

 

Systems such as screws and bolts, especially in the automotive field, require strengths for security. However, in a typical sense, when you make an object or a component lighter, the strength is affected which is a relevant feature to consider for engine components. One of your products is the HRF (Hiten Refining Bolt) with very high tensile strength. From an engineering standpoint, how are you reconciling these demands between strength and reliability and lightness?


HRF (Hiten Refining Bolt)


HRF (Hiten Refining Bolt) is a product developed for weight reduction by reducing the size and preventing loosening by increasing the strength of the bolt. Some automobile manufacturers specify 1300MPa class, but the standard bolt strength of automobile manufacturers is generally up to 1000MPa. As the strength of the bolt increases, the toughness decreases. Also, the risk of delayed fracture increases. A delayed fracture is a phenomenon in which a bolt suddenly breaks after a certain period of time. It is caused by hydrogen forced into the steel due to surface corrosion. HRF is a product that has achieved the strength of 1400MPa as a result of the repeated evaluation of delayed fractures. It started with selecting materials suitable for high strength. Since it also has excellent heat resistance, we are proposing weight reduction by downsizing and replacing bolts using heat-resistant steel that can be used in engines.


HTB (High-tensile tapping bolt)


Another product that responds to customers’ weight reduction needs is High-tensile tapping bolts (HTB). HTB is developed to form internal threads on aluminium alloy members of automobiles. Generally, the process of forming internal threads on aluminium alloy suspension members has five processes which are: casting a hole, drilling a pilot hole, cleaning the hole, tapping the internal thread, and finally cleaning the hole again. All these five steps are performed for the preparation. By giving a bolt a self-tapping function, only the first process which is casting a hole on the aluminium alloy is required. The rest of the processes are eliminated. Internal threads are formed by protrusions called lobes attached to the bolt end. By forming internal threads little by little with these lobes, additional torque due to processing is reduced. Furthermore, by applying a friction stabilizer to the product itself, the initial torque can be reduced, and the bolt can be used without changing its tightening torque. Another advantage of using this bolt is that the internal threads are plastically deformed compared to machining. So the clearance between the bolt and the internal thread is reduced, and the loosening resistance is improved. It is used for assembling transmission cases and chain cases.

 

International co-creation and collaboration with foreign firms is important and working with local firms can be the key to unlocking different international markets. When we talked to Aoyama-san of Aoyama Seisakusho, he emphasised that finding local partners in the United States was vital to their expansion strategy throughout North America. What role does co-creation play in your business model? Are you currently looking for any new international co-creation partners?

Firstly, from a global market point of view, I think co-creation is an important strategy for future serious expansion. To meet the needs of customers, more global capabilities will be expected than ever while facing the drastic business environment change in the world. Co-creation with other skilled producers, who have the technology and capability in specific strategic areas that we don't have, could provide the opportunity for both sides and compensate for each others weaknesses. At the moment, we are not looking for international co-creation partners as we still have extra capacity in our overseas facilities. Nevertheless, we strongly feel the necessity of acquiring information about potential partners for the future. As the automobile industry changes drastically, the change which would strongly affect our future business plan can happen suddenly.

Secondly, from a product point of view, there are numerous screw and bolt manufacturers in the world. It is quite difficult to expand sales unless we can develop a product with high added value and functionality. We are also proposing an assembly product instead of proposing a bolt alone. For example, a stabilizer link is a part used for chassis on automobiles. Originally, its production started at our parent company, NHK Spring. They entrusted the commercial right to us because we are also a producer of the bolt joint, which is a component of the stabilizer link. The combination of springs and screws is used for various purposes, and they are often separately supplied to assembly manufacturers.


Stabilizer link


Other than the stabilizer link, we are also developing assembly products with springs. Since they are separate parts, there is a problem with the workability of the customers' assembly line, so we are proposing this as an assembly product that integrates the bolts and springs. The springs are provided by our parent company, NHK Spring, while the bolts are made by Topura. I consider this as co-creation. We hope to replace the existing products of other companies with our own. It is a small idea but has great utility for our customers. Furthermore, we are identifying similar applications and creating new proposals.

I think co-creation is important, and we are also looking for global partners as an opportunity for future expansion. Maybe not at this time, but we still want to gather information for future purposes and not miss the timing then.

 

Your company is present in the United States, Mexico, and China. Can you elaborate more about your international ambitions and strategy? What markets are you prioritising in the future, and what areas are key for you?

 We have overseas affiliates in United States, China, and Mexico. Among these affiliates, China still has the highest potential, and we are actively working to acquire new business there. In terms of labor cost, Mexico also has the potential for high growth. We also need to seriously consider the possibility of expanding our business in India. While paying close attention to the market trends, we would like to continually capture business opportunities that come our way.

 

Imagine that we come back to have this interview again on the last day of your presidency. What would you like to have achieved during your presidency that you would like to tell us then?

The current midterm plan was established during the COVID-19 crisis before I transferred. We have a very conservative plan for existing sales and expansion sales. I believe that there is still some room for sales expansion with our existing products and assembly products. Since 2016, domestic production has decreased because we transferred some of our domestic products to our overseas affiliate companies for localization. We have been trying to expand our sales; however, it could not be achieved greatly. We would love to realize more stabilized bases for our company, both domestic and overseas. For that purpose, we need to be aggressive to expand our business with the aim of sustainable growth. The sales department has an idea, but we need more visibility as to how, what, and by when. I believe that we have good products. I asked the R&D section to integrate the R&D strategy with the expansion plan. The R&D strategy and the sales expansion strategy have to totally match. I would like to establish a penetration map to see our customers’ activity and understand where we need to promote more. I would like to emphasize and promote this kind of theme and accelerate expansion. Given the opportunity, I would like to give you a report about how my team was able to do so.


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