Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Industry & Trade | Asia-Pacific | Japan

Japan

Union key to the metal plating industry


1 month ago

Naoki Aizawa, Representative of Union Plate Co. Ltd.
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Naoki Aizawa

Representative of Union Plate Co. Ltd.

As a specialised manufacturer of metal plates, Union Plate offers products that provide the basis for molds and equipment parts. In this interview, Representative Director Naoki Aizawa explains how Union is adapting to a changing industry, taking advantage of digital technologies, in addition to the company's ambitions of expanding overseas.

Could you give us your take on the fundamental strength of the overall Japanese monozukuri? What is the difference between Japanese manufacturing compared to regional competitors?

In the past, Japan used to have the passion to create something very fine and intricate, however it's rather more what we have as an accumulated knowledge and experience that makes our Japanese monozukuri what it is today. On the other hand, I believe we are indeed falling a bit behind, in comparison to regional competitors, when it comes to manufacturing new and innovative products.

 

Japan is experiencing a population change, as one in three people are already over the age of 65. Can you tell us how those changes are affecting your business and what are you doing about it?

We are aware that the number of manufacturers in Japan will decrease, as well as our customers, and it will be difficult to hire new employees because of that. In terms of solutions, we are trying to enhance and improve productivity by using IT and automation systems.

 

Union Plate is adopting the eShop system by working close with your sales team through digital platforms. Can you tell us what benefit this has for you and your users, and how does that help reduce the lead time?

The metal industry is still a non-digital world and quite far behind when it comes to IoT. Even if one wants to exchange information or such, there are very few partners that are capable of using such an online business system. In reality, most of them are more of a family business, so instead of asking them to make an investment, we are helping them to create their own web-based system to be able to send them our quotation and fasten the process of ordering for example. We can then avoid using fax, as it is still a very common and inconvenient way of processing orders.

 

Fujimaki Plate are creating a platform with which they are going to link the primary processors with the secondary ones, both here in Japan and regionally in Asia. Is this something that you would be interested in? How are you strengthening your network both regionally and domestically?

We are using the same type of product already, but the way we process the market is different. We get the material from various companies, and we do what is called OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturing), we then sell our product to trading companies and secondary shops. Here at Union Plate, we only sell the finished product, whereas Fujimaki Plate does additional processing such as different shapes or remodeling.

 

There has been increased demand for lighter materials, such as magnesium, titanium and CFRP’s (Carbon, Fiber, Reinforced Polymers). How are you adapting to that?

These kinds of new materials, purposed mostly for customers and manufacturers, do not really get exposed to the general market. Even though we sell only the final product, our best strength is the convenience and customer service that we are providing.



You mentioned that you aim to be the number one plate manufacturing company here in Japan. In a recent interview you stated that the Japanese market is saturated and fully matured. Does this mean that you are looking to expand elsewhere in Asia? If so, how are you going to do that?

The custom plate is appreciated only by mature manufacturers, so it can only be accepted in a country where the manufacturing industry is already at a mature state.

Our business model is that we don’t want to sell our plates at a low cost, we want customers to understand the value of our product. By creating a system where they don't have to do their inventory and we can deliver whenever they want. They don’t have to invest in machinery, in labor fees, which justify our prices from our unique quality service.

 

Many of your customers are looking to expand internationally. It’s well known that Japanese manufacturers are setting up in Vietnam, Thailand and all over Southeast Asia. Are you looking to follow them and if so, which countries?

Three years ago, we were investigating which countries we could have started to expand ourselves into, but the pandemic came unfortunately. The countries we were and are still thinking of investigating are Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia. We are looking for markets that are not fully matured yet, but where the metal plate business does exist. We thought about China and South Korea too, because they do have the plate market that we are interested in, but those two are not friendly to Japanese businesses.

We have had a subsidiary in Thailand for nine years already. However, we started it as a former joint venture with a large Japanese company, but regrettably, it was not a successful story. There are much bigger companies out there, handling much larger volumes than we do, so we then decided to develop our business independently. Learning from this experience, we might join ventures with other companies once again in future.

 

In terms of research and development of new products, what role is co-creation playing in your international expansion? Are you looking for a technical partner to tie up with?

We are currently not looking for any technical partners. Of course, we do work with IT developers to improve our system sales management software, but that is our own system.

 

Imagine we come back for your 35th anniversary and have this interview again: what do you think you would say to us? What goals would you have achieved?

Our business model is not the type of business that will go through major changes or major innovations.  I think we will pretty much stay with the same model that we have as today. We will be in a state where we will have better and more convenient service to our customers, and more work sites in and outside of Japan. Also, we are not thinking of making any alliance with any other partners, but we are looking into more M&A opportunities. Only if they help our customers to use our system better, such as logistics and service.


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