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460 years of improving production efficiency with monozukuri.

Interview - June 7, 2022

With a long history beginning as a cast metal company in 1560, Nabeya has managed to remain competitive despite the challenges and transformations the industry has seen in such extensive period of time. We met with President Tomohiko Okamoto to learn how to company has recognized these challenges as opportunities to apply their “Technocraft” philosophy in order to evolve into a comprehensive machinery parts and components manufacturer that has developed a one stop solution business and is focusing on anti-vibration related products which have crucial applications mostly in the semiconductor, as well as medical industries.

TOMOHIKO OKAMOTO, PRESIDENT OF NABEYA CO., LTD.
TOMOHIKO OKAMOTO | PRESIDENT OF NABEYA CO., LTD.

What do you believe to be the strengths or competitive advantages of Japanese corporations that allow them to compete in a fiercely competitive regional manufacturing landscape?

In Japanese there is a word called nariwai which means you do your work for your living, but also you have great honor and pride in your work. We are an old company and Japanese people long ago were engaged in agricultural work. Maybe this has something to do with our characteristics nowadays as well.

Be it manufacturing or agriculture, whatever you're engaged in, I think many Japanese people tend to continue what they start with passion and pride. Being the president of the company, I have the responsibility of improving my employees’ lives but at the same time, I am very proud of what has been passed on from many years ago – the brand - so I have the passion to continue that. The chairman is the 15th generation of this company I am the 16th president of this company and we have been doing monozukuri for 450 years.

When we talk about value creation, we mean value creation for our customers, our employees and for society. For SMEs in Japan, which are small, it's very important for the management to be keen about values and having the perspective of employees, not a top-down approach simply from the management.

Currently we hear words used like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘democracy’, which refer to looking after a variety of diverse stakeholders, including employees and society, or preserving the economy and the Earth. This is a very new concept for a lot of companies, western companies as well, but for us in Japan it seems this has always been true. You have to be mindful of society and the employees for you to be able to do business.

Another point is steady management, and what this means is that if you recall the bubble economy period of Japan, many companies expanded their business interests into things like owning golf courses for example, something completely different from what their specialty was, but after the bubble economy burst a lot of companies collapsed or shrank their business, so what I mean by steady management is completely the opposite of what they used to do in the bubble economy period. We focus on our expertise only and we don't go into other speculative areas.

We started out as a cast metal company and casting requires a lot of passion because it's metal melted in an environment of 1600 degrees heat so if you make a mistake it could be very dangerous for people. It could also generate a fire and it could easily create defective goods, so people who are engaged in the cast metal industry are usually very careful about their work.

Furthermore, clients feel more secure knowing that their supplier or their partner company will remain for many years. In order for a company to stay a long time, you have to have steady management so I think it works in both ways - being very diligent about doing what you need to do for many long years, which helps your company survive for many years, and also that will help clients by being there all the time for them.

Having said that, if you continue to do what you used to do 450 years ago, you’d no longer be here so depending on how the society and the world changes, you have to adjust to it and not become old fashioned in your products and the productive processes needed to produce them. You also need to change the product types and how you sell also needs to be reviewed and changed. For example, DX is also another important factor these days.

 

The automotive industry is seeing huge shifts both from traditional engines to EV’s and from heavier materials such as steel to lighter ones like aluminum. Can you please share with us how your firm is responding to these changes and what impact these changes are having on your production processes?

I see this change as an opportunity for our company. We chose to do this interview because we are a B2B company. In the 1990s there were many Japanese B2C companies which have since declined in this era. Also, the supporting industries that supply materials and electrical parts for things like smartphones still hold a very competitive power and are very strong in the global market.

Our company is B2B, not B2C, and we provide parts and components necessary for manufacturing facilities. When the engine type changes for cars, it means they will need new manufacturing equipment, which means we have more opportunity to provide new components because they will be needing to buy a new set of manufacturing equipment.

When traditional car engines no longer exist in the future and become electrical motors and maybe hydrogen energy becomes the mainstream or another type may become the mainstream, manufacturing processes will change and the equipment needed for production will change and this will bring new opportunities to our company.

In the future, the automation of production processes will be very important and will become key. Companies such as those involved in robotics or the provision of automated production facilities to their customers will especially be effected by this, but it is true for everyone.

Another thing is that of course quality and stability are very important when you automate production processes and if you automate the production process, the robotics will stop with the slightest vibration picked up from the floor. Thus, anti-vibration or vibration prevention related material components will be a key component of production processes going forward.



When you look at the semiconductor industry, there are three major players including Tokyo Electron, in the global market there is also Lam Research in the US. These two are, I think part of the three top players in the semiconductor field. We have sold anti vibration related products to a major semiconductor company. Our staff would go to their factory and help them install those components into their production line.

 

As factories become more automated, how do you believe the role of the engineer will evolve?

I understand your question very well, but before I jump into answering it, since Nabeya is a manufacturing company, I want to talk about what we think about technology in manufacturing and then move on to discussing human resources.

We don't go after mass volume production, we are more interested in variable-mix variable-volume production and providing high quality products in a shorter delivery time with low defect rates. ‘Technocraft’ is a word that the previous president and current chairman created which means technology plus craftsmanship.

Technocraft is a very important part of our company philosophy, and it is composed of three important concepts which are: improving the skills of our workers, doing Kaizen activity, which means continuous improvement, as well as 3-dimensional digital engineering. By mixing these three elements in the most optimized way we can realize high mix, low volume production that provides good quality in a short delivery time, and by continuing this cycle all the time we will continue to make improvements.

Since we are not a large company, we are aiming to optimize our processes as much as possible, especially during the nightshift. We want to fully automate it and we want to decrease the number of processes that require people’s engagement. On the other hand, when we look at variable variable-mix, variable-volume production there are still a lot of areas that require people to get involved, especially when it comes to Kaizen - continuous improvement.

Regarding improving the skills of our employees, one method of doing that is supporting them to study and pass national skill tests. This will help improve and motivate the employees as well, helping to build their career path. Our employees have a minimum of two certifications of this type. People who have multiple certifications have the right to manufacture bells in temples. On average, we get an order once a year from a temple, but this is not for business purposes, it’s to show the confidence that we have in this kind of technology.

That's an important element - improving the skills of employees, but another factor is teamwork. Individual work is required to obtain a certification for each employee with the support of the company, but another part is working together as a team. To maintain the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle I ask the people on the shop floor for the feeling of kaizen and teamwork.

For example, this is applicable to sales departments or technology development and product development departments as well. CAD/CAM software technology has developed greatly in the past 20 years and at our company we have many different types of simulation software and this is used in many different departments in our company, for example, casting, machining, or verification of the technology or manufacturing and also in development and design.

I talked about the need to promote the automation of our production processes, but that doesn't mean we will need less people. We will be automating our processes but there are other areas, like development, that use computer simulations that require people to implement it. There are still a lot of potential areas where we may need more people to be involved, so we'll be automating our processes but at the same time we need more people. I feel I have fewer people than I need.

 

What role does collaboration or play in your business model? Are you currently looking for partners either in Japan or overseas?

We have about seven or eight partner companies, mainly in Italy and Germany. When there are components that match what we require, we partner with that company and import those components from overseas.

Most of our products are not mass produced, but we do have some types of products that are, and for those we would import them as a unit from a Taiwanese company. For the vibration isolation products, we have partner companies in Austria, and Germany, and we import products from companies in these countries. For the mechanical parts, we purchase them from a Canadian company and sometimes a Taiwanese company as well.

We are not a major company and we have limited resources. Our usual business model is creating sales agencies in overseas markets when we need to sell. As our customers’ needs are diversifying more and more, I see the importance of finding partnership companies overseas, so I want to increase the number of partnership companies in future, because we have some partnerships but we want more. We have already invested in a Chinese company called Topcel, and a sales representative office in Shanghai, so we'll be expanding from there.

 

Are there any markets or regions that you consider key as part of your international business, and in those regions what kind of strategy will you employ?

Although we manufacture machinery components, we would like to focus more in the future on vibration isolation products. When we look at our vibration isolation product lines, they are applicable to the semiconductor industry, the medical industry, measuring industry and partly the logistics industry as well.

Our main focus for now is firmly on jig fixture products which are for machine tools,

which is limited, but when we look at the vibration isolation product it has a lot of potential for different applications, so we want to focus on this field and especially the semiconductor and medical markets.

 

You're soon going to be exhibiting at an online exhibition where you'll prepare products, technologies and solutions for medical equipment manufacturers who have a need for vibration countermeasures or vibration measuring technology. Can you tell us more about your products and technologies in this particular business line and what your expectations are for this this event?

We are planning to showcase our products at an exhibition soon. We have business experience in providing our products to the semiconductor industry, but we don't have much in the medical industry, so we want to put our effort into that more.

We'll be using these platforms to improve the awareness of potential clients by using these opportunities. Another method is that we have created a selection program for our website, because we have more than 1000 components and I think it's difficult for our potential clients to get all that information otherwise.

This website is only in Japanese, but there is a selection program that lets users type in certain information or their design specifications and they get the list of potential components that they could use. We want to provide this because most engineers collect their information online so we would like to use this as one of our tools.

In terms of the vibration isolation products, I think the need for customized components will increase. We have standardized products, but I think customers will be asking for custom made components. We have just started a one stop solution business. This is where we would first start a discussion with the client’s engineers and ask what specifications they are looking for and then using a computerized simulation system we’ll create a prototype and then we'll test the prototype on our test machine and then move on to mass production.



When it comes to anti vibration products, what challenges are you trying to solve in pursuit of perfecting them, and what technologies are you developing to help with this?

Particularly in the manufacturing industry, a lot of companies put a lot of effort into developing their people. We are also a manufacturing company and we need to train our people, but as you know it's becoming more and more difficult for us to attract younger generation people into our workforce.

Younger people are less interested in the manufacturing industry these days. That's another challenge, so there are two challenges, one is that we have to find a stable way of acquiring young potential workers and then finding an effective way to train them.

Another essential point is that an advanced CAD/CAM software simulation system is a must for the company. Unless we have that, it will be difficult to train people on the most advanced technology and we would lose our competitive edge, so that means we need to continue to invest in this kind of system and equipment.

Our vibration solution products are a key component used for semiconductors. One vibration isolation unit costs five to six million yen, so they are very expensive. We don't have the technology or skill to produce high-precision type ourselves, so we currently import them from a US company. If we are committed to putting our effort into this field, we have to find strong partners overseas like this US company, which provides very high end products, and we have to be a company which can absorb all these products and skills.

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