Since its establishment in 1994, Saki Corporation has delivered unique and creative automated inspection equipment for printed circuit board assembly and semiconductor manufacturing. The company has succeeded in this important quest driven by the motto embodied in its corporate principle: “Challenging the creation of new value”. The robotics industry plays a key role in the development of the global economy. Saki Corporation endeavors to promote the development of this rapidly expanding and changing industry sector as it continues to pursue its goal to increase its contribution to societies around the world. We speak with Mr. Norihiro Koike, Representative Director, President and CEO of Saki Corporation.
Monozukuri is being replicated by cheaper competitors, how do you define the essence of Monozukuri?
My company was formed in 1994 and we began in the domestic market by producing inspection devices for the SONY Walkman. Japanese manufacturing centers then moved to Korea and later to China; we walked that same path by acquiring various mobile customers in Korea and China.
Thanks to Monozukuri, technology has evolved and components of products have become more precise and intricate with a much higher level of detail. Our inspection systems have therefore also evolved to suit contemporary trends, first from 2D to 3D and then on to X-ray.
Then complex circuit boards began to appear, not simply in mobile phones but in the internal assemblies of cars, aircraft, medical equipment, computers, and even in consumer white goods... so we can say in all truth that we make a significant contribution to the environment and infrastructure across all parts of our world.
As a manufacturing company, how has the proliferation of electrical devices, IoT, affected your business?
Our major clients are in circuit board manufacture. Historically, in our major clients’ facilities, there would have been people in charge of checking each manufactured product and inspecting it to determine that it met the specifications required. Due to the advances and evolution in assembly processes, that task cannot be sustained for long periods and the cost of that labor is no longer viable. That’s not to say that the manufacturing process has become simpler and easier, so in this situation the key element is the automation of these processes.
When you replace human labor with automation, you must ensure that the accuracy is at least the same and preferably better. Originally, the machines we created simply replicated and replaced the processes done by people – they needed to be used as inspection instruments. Now those inspection instruments must do so much more.
Today, these machines measure, compare, evaluate and collect data (e.g. on the height and length of inspected elements) and provide critical feedback to the manufacturing process.
Delivering this detailed and accurate data is the primary driver behind our decision to create both 3D and X-ray technologies. We strive to distinguish ourselves and our products from the inspection devices that are manufactured in the APAC region and in other territories around the world.
Could you share with us the key milestones of your history?
One of the key decisions that made us stand out and helped us to get to where we are now was the creation of our 2D Inspection Systems. It didn’t take long for that to become the best-selling product of its time.
Up to that point, inspections had been based on static Field of View (FoV). However, higher speeds were required, and a motion system was needed in the inspection process to boost that speed. By deploying Line Scan Technology, we managed to make the process more seamless and at the same time shortened the time needed for inspection. That’s the main reason behind the success of our 2D systems.
It was SONY who requested that we inspect their boards in 30 seconds, 25 years ago. We were able to meet that time challenge and provide the process at less cost than our competitors. In the first 10 years after the founding of the company, we were focused on selling these 2D inspection devices. We expanded thanks to the Japanese Monozukuri manufacturing process philosophy being adopted overseas. There was a rise in cheaper competitors in Korea and Taiwan, so to differentiate ourselves we began developing 3D and X-ray technologies.
Could you give us an overview of your different products?
With our 3D technology, we started with clients manufacturing high added value products, where we consolidated the standards to provide high accuracy inspections. From the client’s perspective, our devices appeared complex and difficult to program. To tackle that issue, we incorporated 3D-SPI (Solder Paste Inspection) and 3D-AOI (Automated Optical Inspection) system technologies into the inspection processes.
One of the solutions we implemented to facilitate and simplify their use was to deploy hardware and software on the assembly line that uses the same programming. By doing this, we reduced the number of people needed to operate the machine by almost 70%. It was a pivotal moment for us.
As a result, many of our potential customers saw this great productivity and commercial potential and chose us over our competitors.
Which product occupies the biggest share of your market?
3D-AOI accounts for almost half of our total business, while 2D-AOI, SPI and X-ray deliver the remainder of our sales revenue in equal measure.
Is there any upcoming product that you would like to share with us?
We have a new X-ray machine in development. This is lighter and far more accurate than our current machine and significantly better than other machines available at present on the market. Deliveries have already begun.
What is the role of R&D within your company?
I can easily demonstrate the critical role of R&D to you using the example of why it was necessary to evolve and advance our technology from 2D to 3D. The smallest component on the board 30 years ago could be seen and easily manipulated by human labor. In contrast, thanks to developments in Surface Mount Technology (SMT), some electronic components are so small that humans are barely able to see them with the naked eye and completely incapable of measuring them without some kind of magnification or technology assistance. That’s why we developed our 3D and X-ray inspection systems.
That inspection process for barely visible components is critical to the dependability of the end product that uses those components. For example, a fault in a smartphone can be corrected or the phone replaced if the customer has a problem. But when human lives are at stake, for example with the automotive industry moving toward autonomous vehicles, the quality has to be impeccable. There is no margin for error. To ensure that quality, the manufacturing process must be perfect. Our inspection systems give our manufacturing customers that confidence. That’s why we develop X-ray systems to inspect inside the semi-conductor products. In addition, due to the lack of labor in factories all over the world and the need to sustain the Monozukuri, developing AI technology will be essential to realize true automation.
How important is Co-creation for your company? Are you actively looking for Co-Creation partners overseas?
We do not have any problem with co-creation; it is an old friend of ours. At the moment, we are focused on AI related to Industry 4.0. Programming and the technology related to it are becoming more challenging, so we will need AI technology to address some parts of the programming process and to read and interpret complex data. We collaborate through outsourcing to create those kinds of intelligent solutions.
We believe that the inspection process will move on to measurement to realize effective automation. That automation cannot be realized with inaccurate, false, or artificial data. Therefore, we are committed to creating true and accurate data with 3D and X-ray technology. Combining this accuracy and AI along with IoT will create full automation and this cannot be achieved independently. Not only do we co-develop to create those kinds of solutions, but we also collaborate with clients to experiment and verify that each creation works.
We have development partners in Canada and the Philippines. Our suppliers are all over the world. We have many nationalities here working in Japan. We have software development functions in the Czech Republic, China, and Mexico. I believe that this kind of diversification will also contribute in guiding the continuous innovation of Monozukuri.
What will be your mid-term strategy to pursue corporate growth? What is the most important thing for your company’s growth in the future?
In relative terms, we are a fledgling company with only 30 years of history, but we plan on moving forward and growing. Our endeavors to date can be observed in the way our business moved from 3D to X-Ray and now on to deploying AI in our R&D to continue expanding our technologies, provide added value and meet the expectations of our clients.
For any manufacturing industry, it’s crucial to look at new technologies as they arise and to keep up to date by embracing innovations used in the field – and to be able to continue to invest robustly in R&D in order to stay strong in the game.
Can you tell us more about your international strategy?
We developed our business to accommodate the way our main clients shifted their manufacturing facilities. First, they were focused on Japan and then started to shift to Korea, China, and now India and beyond. However, Japan remains the core part of manufacturing requirements and capabilities.
In the electronics industry, higher-end products require accurate and precise finishes which remains the preserve of Japanese and European production facilities.
For the past ten years, we drove the expansion of our business in Europe and now one third of our business originates there. In comparison, China represents another third. At the moment, we are looking forward to further expanding our presence in the Americas and the Asia-Pacific area.
The reason for focusing our efforts on the APAC region is because our clients are extending their presence in this area. So again, we are accommodating our clients by paralleling their journey and we are benefiting from it.
When you go overseas you find partners or distributors or both?
To maintain stability and balance, we have established an infrastructure that is half direct and half via distribution.
Which areas of the world show the greatest growth potential for you?
When we decided to strengthen in Europe, we discovered the great market opportunity presented by Eastern Europe. We believe that the same will happen to us in the Americas, making that great potential for us.
Our philosophy is to keep our customers satisfied and support them closely and continuously along the way. Acquiring one big client in the automotive industry would be key for expansion. By achieving certification from these clients, we will be able to operate across the world without any barriers.
If we were to come back in 5 years and interview you all over again, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company and what would you like to have accomplished by then?
Since its inception 30 years ago, the Inspection Industry has been developing and I long for it to continue to do so. I am confident that the position of this industry sector will rise from simple inspection to the ability to provide measurement and feedback to the production machines and assembly processes in real time, to maintain absolute process integrity instantly and continuously. That integrity is vital for the quality and reliability of the end products. I believe that this kind of measurement technology will be essential not only for the electronics industry but other industries as well. We are living in an ever-changing world but the importance of Monozukuri’s efficiency remains intact.