Pioneers push society forwards, but also assume the responsibility of changing the course of this journey when needed. Japanese thermoforming machine manufacturer Asano Laboratories is a prime example, a world leader in its field that understands the need to revolutionize the plastics industry. Through its industry-leading thermoforming machines and innovative techniques, Asano Laboratories is driving the plastics industry into the new world of sustainability and innovation while fulfilling its customers’ needs, as explained by president Toshihiro Takai in his recent interview with The Worldfolio.
Since WWII, Japan has had an excellent reputation for creating quality products embodied by the automotive industry. In recent decades, we have seen the rise of regional competitors from China, Korea and Taiwan who replicated Japanese monozukuri at a cheaper labor cost producing cheaper products but with inferior quality. As a thermoforming machine specialist, can you give us your take on the advantages of Japanese monozukuri and why Japan is successful when it comes to manufacturing?
After WWII, Japan was able to recover from a state of devastation. Most Japanese companies established at the time were very quick to respond to market needs and imitate overseas technological advances. Japanese companies introduced their technologies imitated overseas but with several improvements. Japanese monozukuri brought about highly reliable and durable products. Japanese companies' success is also because of Japan's educational system and cultural standards. The manufacturing industry in Japan is of high quality because the people are very diligent and serious when it comes to manufacturing good-quality products. These are the reasons why Japanese companies were able to maintain competitiveness despite a harsh global market.
Japanese SMEs make up to 99% of all businesses and provide 70% of the overall employment in Japan. SMEs bring about Japan's high technology in manufacturing industries which allows them to maintain a high global market share.
Japanese manufacturing is threatened by the declining population. Japan will have less than 100 million people by 2050 and a third of the population will be aged. At the same time, we see the world population exploding. It is expected that by 2050 there will be 10 billion people on earth. This will create issues when it comes to food storage and food waste. Prolonging the life of food will be very important in the logistics supply chain. As a company specializing in thermoplastic forming machines, how can your technologies aid in this regard and the population change that is soon to come?
Japan is now the oldest society in the world with one out of three over the age of 65 in the next 15 years. This is one of the biggest social problems that Japan has been especially aware of. The situation can both be viewed from a positive and negative light. On the positive side, the increase of elderly people will bring about new markets such as in the food industry. There is a need for hygienic and portable plastic containers that contain smaller meal portions to cater to the elderly and vulnerable people's shopping needs. Safety and security during distribution and storage are also needed. There is also the issue of food waste which continually increases annually. There are roughly about 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually. If there are 4 billion tons of food production worldwide, a third of that is going to be wasted. Japan is no different. There is a place for plastic food containers that are portable, hygienic, and storable to reduce the amount of food waste. It is inevitable that our domestic market will shrink due to the decline in population. Our company already has an active management plan in operation for exports.
Which future target markets will you be looking at for future export opportunities?
Southeast Asian countries such as Taiwan and Korea are the regions for expansion for our export products. Another is the Indian market.
Plastic is a vital resource for our daily lives. It is one of the most versatile materials. Some 99% of plastic is derived from petroleum so it puts a hard burden on the environment. Governments are putting a lot of pressure on the industry to move away from petroleum-based products and move towards biomass-based alternatives such as cellulose nanofiber. How is your company adapting your machinery to this new trend for biomass plastics and what steps are you taking towards this change?
Our company views plastic waste as a big problem because of its impact on the environment. The Japanese government adopted the plastic recycling strategy of reuse, the basic principle is 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle).
These governmental initiatives are milestones that set future standards. The Japanese government aims to reduce cumulative factory emissions of disposable plastic by 25% in 2030. By 2025, the aim is to have a society with reusable and recyclable design models. By 2030, the goal is to have 60% of the plastic packaging containers reused and recycled. By 2035, the goal is 100% effective use of used plastics including heat recovery. The country targets 2030 to double the recycling of plastic and introduce the maximum amount of biomass plastics of about two million tons. Unfortunately, there is a problematic point in choosing the method of how these plastic containers will be accumulated. They will be collected by masses of people. For that reason, next month in April this year, the Japanese government will also introduce a new plastic resource recycling law. We hope that collection for such types of plastic will proceed. We are following all the steps and working alongside the Japanese government with this new law. We are working with the plastic recycling strategy not only from materials coming from Japan but also overseas companies. When we think about recycling, it is desirable that the raw material is a single material. We are focusing on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as a raw material and we are advertising it to domestic and overseas raw material companies. There is a problem though with people accumulating a lot of plastic containers. The Japanese government is implementing the plastic resource recycling law in April this year. Our company is supporting and abiding by this new law with our materials coming from Japan and overseas. We prefer single raw material plastics for recycling purposes. There are several reasons why we want to get into PET as a raw material. The first is because of its stretchability. The strength increases with the thickness and can also be reduced with products of the same shape which results in using fewer raw materials. Another reason why we choose to deal with PET more than any other plastic material is that PET is making it possible to deal with that sheet of pre-layer VRV which is composed of virgin recycle virgin structure. Recycled products can be effectively used. Another reason is that PET's virgin recycle virgin (VRV) sheet layer structure makes it possible for recycled products to be used effectively.
Bio-PET can also be used which promotes biomass plastic. However, when thermoforming deep-drawn products, pressure and vacuum thermoforming by radiation heating is required. When heated material shrinks, thermoforming is difficult. For this reason, we introduced the Quick Response Heater (QRH). We have developed a thermoforming technology that uses a heating system and it is now almost ready to use.
PET’s downside is its heat resistance of only 60℃. It cannot be used to make retort containers that require a heat resistance feature. As a solution, we applied crystallized polyethylene terephthalate CPET which is crystallized PET and is heat resistant. This method has become widely known and is now being used. The double molding method that combines heating and cooling molds is limited when it comes to product shapes. To eliminate the drawback of the double mold method, we developed the single mold method where we use only the heat mold technology. To add more value to CPET containers with heat resistance up to 230℃, we are promoting the use of foamed heat resistant PET containers in collaboration with overseas raw material companies. We believe that it is possible to make PET which is a single material but with low heat resistance into foam containers with heat insulation. Asano Lab is now focused on biomass plastics. Generally, PLA (one of biomass plastics) decomposes with environmental temperatures of 55°C and 80% humidity or higher. A specific environment is required for decomposition. Biomass plastics can significantly reduce CO2 emissions and contribute to a more sustainable society. It normally has a heat resistance of 50°C but by using the heat set molding that we used as well as PET, crystallization can be achieved to increase heat resistance all the way up to 120°C. We used the single molding technology and exhibited the machine in Guangzhou, China in 2019. We are collaborating with domestic and overseas companies to develop heat-resistant PLA products. We are working with domestic raw material and molding companies with P-Hydroxy-Benzoate Hydroxylase (PHBH) which are biodegradable even in seawater. Twenty years ago, we developed a vacuum forming machine for hybrid containers, paper containers and pulp molding containers. We have improved our machines and technologies to meet the demand of the ever-changing market. All the company's technology on thermoforming plastics is in cooperation with the governmental approach of plastic resource recycling laws.
Can you tell us how these co-creations with foreign partners provide business opportunities? What type of new partners are you looking for?
We are receiving more inquiries from foreign companies and we are doing business in cooperation with raw material providers. Recently, we saw an increase in the quality of raw materials coming from foreign countries. This works to our advantage when we introduce our technologies with these quality materials. Our business is midstream. We know companies downstream which are raw material and production companies and upstream which are the end-users. This allows us to do business with many companies.
Can you tell us more about the technologies that you want to showcase to the world? What particular products do you believe should the world know about from your company?
We will hire a broadcasting network to introduce our products, factories and sales. The factory in Asano has completed installing a large-scale high-speed pressure and vacuum thermoforming system which was designed and developed mainly for the overseas market. We are trying to introduce this product to China. This thermoforming system is equipped with a camera to detect defects on products after thermoforming. We expect an increase in demand for this product in the future. There will be a demonstration of thermoforming and trimming linked to an automatic packaging machine. In the Shanghai Demo Center, we will demonstrate a high-speed heat set molding of CPET with the single molding method.
Cars are going to be battery-based in the future with lithium-ion batteries and with that is the need for lighter materials such as plastic. Can you tell us what business opportunities have the switch to EV created for you and what products are you creating specifically for that change?
Technical expertise is crucial in anticipating the changes that are going to happen in the industry. We have to be in making decisions and adapting to the change. We are a small-scale company with only about 129 employees including executives. Some 40 people are related to engineering which means that the sales and technical departments often work together. Everyone knows the direction of the company in terms of research and development (R&D). The technical department is in charge of mechanical design and controls. We have an R&D department in charge of developing new technologies. The R&D department is divided into two. The environmental group is responsible for disposal and environmental measures. The automobile group is responsible for the development of products related to automobiles. We developed a number of decorative products for car parts. We make decorative products for the interior of the car but the third-generation lights transmission product is the one getting attention. It is black in the daytime, but the pattern imprinted on the back of the LED light emerges at night. Our technology has a printing accuracy within ±0.3mm. It is a preprint embedded in the plastic that gives special features to the product lineup. The preference for lighter materials with the EV change to extend mileage means using more plastic parts. I believe in introducing more plastic parts in cars. We are developing thermoforming technology equipment for thick materials that can be used for decorative thermoforming technology in cars. We hope to use this new stronger and lightweight material on large parts of car parts such as tailgates. R&D is very important for our company. In our R&D center, we have many types of machinery installed such as a high-performance pressure and vacuum thermoforming machine (FLC), a continuous trimming machine (PLS) and compact multifunction pressure & vacuum forming machine (FKS). These machines are not only for in-house manufacturing but also used for open innovation. These facilities are used for thermoforming tests for joint development as requested by domestic or overseas companies.
You supplied more than 5,000 different machines to 26 different countries. Southeast Asia as a target in the future. Countries such as India and Africa are on your radar. What strategies are you putting in place to further expand your business overseas? There are different ways to expand such as doing joint ventures, M&As, sales offices. What is your strategy?
There are several difficulties when conducting business overseas. There are language and cultural barriers we have to address. It is crucial to have a local sales team and not a Japanese team. Currently, we have a dealership contract with Daiichi Jitsugyo that is also a shareholder and Cosmo Machinery which is our subsidiary. We have signed agent contracts with 2 companies in Korea, 1 in Taiwan and 1 in India. Our sales and technical support team are taking care of sales. We also want to expand after-sales service and maintenance to our customers. We are hoping to have 100% local production overseas, but we cannot sustain the same high-quality products as we have in Japan. Further improvement for bases overseas has to be done. At this point, there is only one plant in Japan, but we are building a new plant to be commissioned in the fall of next year in 2023. This new Asano plant will be located ten minutes away by car from the current factory. Production scale capacity will increase by 50% and solar power generation will be installed to reduce CO2 and solar will be used as an energy source. We want to improve our R&D as well. The theme of the new plant is the “Improvement of production efficiency and transmission to innovation” and “Promotion of environmental problems and utilization”.
Your company is celebrating its 69th anniversary this year. If we come back six years from now on your 75th anniversary, what goals and dreams do you have for the company that you would have liked accomplished by then?
As a company, we are not focused on making a profit. Our focus is on our contribution to society and providing customer satisfaction to the highest degree possible. Asano Laboratories is a development type of company and R&D is the core of the company. Our company motto is aiming to be the best in the world of creative technology with the belief that most needed companies in the world will survive and the ones not needed will be eliminated. We believe that we are a company that can contribute to society by understanding the demands of the market, developing necessary products, and satisfying customers.