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Bringing the construction site into the Industry 4.0 era

Interview - May 14, 2021

Established in 1883, Tobishima Corporation has played a vital role in building modern Japan for almost 140 years – overseeing a diverse number of iconic projects. Today, guided by its mid-term plan focusing on digital transformation, innovation, co-creation and building a ‘Smart Solution Service’ business, Tobishima continues to undertake important civil engineering and construction projects in Japan and abroad, across Asia and in Rwanda, Africa. We speak with president Masahiro Norikyo, who explains more about the company’s operations, its technologies such as e-Sense, and how Tobishima Corporation is today at the forefront of the construction industry’s shift to Industry 4.0


We know that you have been developing a number of products that improve efficiency and allow for remote information sharing and one such product is your e-Sense, a multifunctional hands-free system. Can you please tell us about your e-sense product that you have been developing?

Currently, all major business has been conducted through web conferences, but in construction companies you usually have to have the mobility to be capable of introducing that for onsite jobs. Usually, construction sites are obliged to have a hands-free environment because to make it more useful and beneficial for the construction workers at the sites this system has been introduced. We know that the times of the smartphones are going rapidly down, and the transformation is taking full speed. The basic functions are compiled of two major things: (1) introducing the idea of web conferences at these construction sites and connecting people in order to see what is happening in the construction sites; (2) the challenging part is trying the feature of the translation because construction sites are usually using specialized terminology which are only applicable to one particular activity. Even using Google Translate in most cases it is impossible to deliver the full picture of what is actually happening there. These two major features are what the system is targeted for and is about to be implemented. It’s very difficult, but a very concrete feature is introduced right there at the construction sites because most of the IT companies out there simply cannot go into that field. Do you know the Japanese anime called Dragon Ball is using a kind of a loupe that you can see everything around? The image has been inspired by Dragon Ball’s loupe, let’s put one device on the hat of a gentleman and he will take one, and then another will take the other one. He is speaking Japanese and another one is going to receive the speech in English. On the screen he is close, but we can see how his speech is automatically translated into English. It’s hands-free and the tablets are interconnected with a third-party desktop, meaning the office personnel can also receive the same amount of information. Usually there’s a distance between the construction sites and the receiver, it actually works better if we put some distance between us.


Can it work for a distant project, for example one person is in another country and the other one is here?

Yes, we’ve tested this before, one was in Indonesia where they spoke Japanese to us, and everything worked fine. The necessity of this machine has increased simply because of COVID-19 it is becoming quite impossible to meet face to face. This machine works, this is good for exchanging opinions between a senior engineer and the younger ones studying at the sites without actually going there and spending time and money on traveling. The senior management can just teach them online.

Is this product only available for Tobishima, or are you selling this to some clients?

This product is not only used in the channels of Tobishima but also in our rival companies.


What vision do you have for the e-Sense?

In the civil engineering construction sector, the departure point that I’m talking about here is investigating and inspecting the area of construction. That’s actually going to be a greenfield kind of thing. The customers themselves go there to see the conditions of the surrounding environment that we are going to be dealing with. For that reason, this is just a tool that will help communicate and deliver the messages from the construction site. All of these features that are already introduced, with that long distance approach to connect with anyone out there without necessarily going on a business trip. Currently, big-scale engineering construction projects involve multinational expertise. A lot of engineers would have to be going to Japan and doing their jobs here. To eliminate misunderstandings and language barriers, this machine also has a feature of online translation.


Talking about Society 5.0, Japan led the way at the G20 held in Ibaraki, and aims to establish a new society in which everything will be interconnected to make our lives easier whether it’s on medical, transportation, or construction. Could you please tell us how you are contributing to Society 5.0?

We are closely related to the construction technologies that are helping civil engineering firms to act as an architecture concierge. In that way, it aims to help those companies and interconnect them so the projects can be done more easily in a mutual kind of beneficial way. Such technologies are a big part of that movement called Society 5.0. We have been an irreplaceable part of that movement. 


If you look at the Asia Pacific region, we can see two big players in the construction industry, Japan and China, who are competing in terms of winning overseas projects. Japan faces a major competitor with China because of the stiff price competition that they must compete against. There’s a perfect example, a Chinese company has won a project to build a bridge which will connect Singapore and Malaysia. In your specific case, what must the Japanese companies do to overcome this challenge and what are the advantages of working with a Japanese company?

In this situation of stiff competitiveness from the Chinese construction, the key to the hearts of the customers is to listen to what their needs are. The Japanese construction companies are more adaptive towards listening carefully to what the customer wants and implementing these projects according to their needs. Some Chinese contractors are winning the bidding phase of the auction and then dropping the project midway or are not able to provide a good quality, reliable infrastructure project which is very crucial for the population of that particular area and later on the user’s side of maintenance. Our company has been a good example of not only providing high quality, high-reliable projects but also, we put up the highest standard of quality possible, and we can negotiate to introduce a better price range. Chinese companies simply cannot do that because they all set up as low a minimum cost as possible. Therefore, for that reason the Japanese companies can be more flexible and adaptive towards the customers.


Your company, Tobishima, was founded in 1883. Could you please highlight to our international readers what is the essence of your company and what makes you the go to partner?

Our first project in 1883 was to demolish the eastern enclosure around Fukui Castle. We centralized our major activities in civil engineering, we implemented our infrastructural projects from the architecture point to the construction on a full scale -- for example, the dams, the Aqualine, the tunnels, or power plants. Since 1946 the company has been showing good results. Unfortunately, Japan lost in World War 2, then it was restructured, and it took six years to get back on track. In 1947 the company became a corporation and became known as Tobishima Civil Engineering. In 1965, the company changed name to Tobishima Corporation to cast off the image of a company with an exclusive focus on civil engineering. Several significant infrastructure projects have been implemented by the company since then. In 2004, a disaster-preventive measure was introduced in Tobishima before the great earthquake that happened in 2011. We have been very active with our disaster-preventive programs. In 2017 we moved our main office here in Minato-ku, Tokyo, at the same time we marked a new initiative towards becoming a new business contractor and we have been carrying this flag ever since that time.


As a business contractor, this next question is not only relevant to Japan but also important in Asia Pacific, from Los Angeles all the way to Chile, commonly known as the Ring of Fire. To talk about your expertise in disaster-prevention technology, Japan has been facing several natural disasters such as earthquakes. More than ever our construction facilities need to be able to withstand these calamities. Please talk to us about your technology and what you can bring to your customers so that your construction facilities would be able to withstand these natural disasters. How are you bringing that expertise of emergency response, construction and corporate damage and mitigation preparedness to the overseas market?

It’s a full-scale measurement which is composed of four major activities bundled into a full package that we call disaster-preventive functions. First is the disaster-preventive measures. Provided with the sensors that are installed in the disaster areas or at vulnerable places that already have a history of disasters occurring in that area. Information is also a key factor here. We tend to collect as much information from the ground, land, sea or water, put these pieces of information in a database and analyse them. Obviously, Japan is very vulnerable to natural disasters. We are an island country which is surrounded by huge bodies of water, even in our country itself we have landslides or rivers that overflow. Second is the mitigation or getting ahead of time or equipping vulnerable areas with emergency kits. When a disaster occurs, one needs to have access to water, food or communication services. Third is recovery methods. It’s about knowing what to do after a disaster has taken place and to be able to recover as soon as possible. Fourth, is decreasing the disaster to a level as low as possible, this is connected to the on-time information. If you know that a disaster is about to happen or if we can analyse and predict when a disaster is coming, then we can evacuate the people or decrease the level of damages that might be caused from that disaster. These measures have been taking place not only in Japan but also overseas, in areas that might be vulnerable to natural disasters. We also have to take into consideration the specifics of a local area of a certain country, it is important that they also have to be monitored. This is something that Tobishima has been doing for a long time since 2004. We are also known for being a disaster-preventive company. 


Being a leader in the disaster-preventive measures, do you have any specific success story that you’d like to showcase to us and to our international readers regarding an overseas project?

We have a technology that strengthens the cracked parts of a building. This technology allows us to sustain and enforce the building, even the ones that have a lot of people such as hospitals or schools. This lesson we learned from the earthquake in Japan. The braces that sustain or enforce the building from within. They have been installed in the municipal office of Sendai in the Tohoku region, in an area which was devastated more when the earthquake happened. With the technology that we implemented before this earthquake, this building was standing still and we were able to save many lives. It’s a good success story example. It’s a very good thing from a sales point of view, the braces that I’ve talked about are capable of withstanding such strong earthquakes. Other countries that have seen our success story, they started to place orders for our technology to be installed in their premises. This technology can be implemented not only in buildings but can also be used from an industrial engineering’s point of view. For example, this similar technology was used in building a dam in Indonesia, it is helping to avoid having cracks in the dam. Similar types of technology are used beyond civil engineering.

It is really amazing how you, through your technology, are able to save lives. You mentioned Smart Society and the Compact City, which are requiring a new era of water quality and environmental business in which you have expertise because of your aqua engineering effort, could you please run us through this business and your advantage that you have in this area?

It’s not just limited with the aqua engineering possibilities or capabilities being introduced particularly because the first approach is to be able to contribute to the local society and help people in need especially in the devastated areas such as the ones that don’t have easy access to water. The major activities in that department are the purification of water to make water safe for drinking. On one occasion, the company introduced its aqua-engineering capabilities to villages in Rwanda who before then were going to the rivers and were using the not-so-clean water. We truly believe that water is the foundation of everything in our lives as without drinking water nothing can be done. If you have easy access to drinking water, you can introduce more social infrastructure projects. One of our missions is to help those who are in need, that’s one of our social contributions. 

You have been able to introduce multiple technologies that you have here in Tobishima. In your specific case, please tell us what role R&D plays within your company and what new technologies you have developed or are developing?

Our major approach here that you are already witnessing is the introduction of the Electrochemical Display like the e-Sensors is one part of our activity, obviously other products are coming up and it’s just a big part of our approach. This is in close relation to the IT technologies which have the capability to interconnect with this kind of new emerging know-how in that field. The first idea is to simplify the construction site operations with easy access and understanding. The accuracy of delivering information is very important in order to understand what is happening in the construction site. Being a company that is closely related to civil engineering and architecture, to interconnect and simplify the methods is necessary. The Tobishima accelerator program was launched in 2019, the idea of that program is to be capable of doing open innovation, launching an update accelerator to welcome other companies to their co-creation sites. Obviously, with some technologies, especially when we talk about IT technologies, you need technologies that the other companies possess, companies that are attracted to Tobishima. Two companies right now are merchandising their products with us in mutual efforts. Our R&D aims to simplify the work in the construction sites. One company, for instance, was actually bought by Tobishima which is responsible for the procurement and transportation services as well as introducing new technologies in that field. Tobishima has been widely known as a construction and engineering company for many years. This idea of an accelerator has been introduced and we already have results from that.


Are you looking to have open innovation and co-creation with any foreign companies and which countries would you like to tackle?

It’s a necessity to cooperate with some other foreign companies that have some technology that doesn’t exist in Japan for open innovation. We are already successful in that path. Some time ago, there was an approach from an Indian company that was aiming to help with the data processing. There have been inquiries that are already happening. But as you can see here with the Electronics and Communication Engineering with the e-Sense that are already installed for personal needs in other companies. There’s already some move that may be changing the traditional ways of doing a construction. Usually, the customer is the one that dictates what needs to be done in some particular way. Tobishima is flexible towards adapting to the needs of current people or the next generation. Especially with the young people it is quite hard to attract them to the construction working areas or to the companies that do construction and engineering. We are on our way to being attractive to those kinds of people, to bring more happiness, to bring more attractiveness, to become more open-minded with introducing different approaches and technologies on our side.


Your midterm strategy is based on digital promotion, productivity improvement and business innovation. Could you please run us through the strategies that you are continuing to implement?

The new branding business or approach of the company is harvesting many things such as Electronics and Communication Engineering. These activities can be called by one phrase which is: Smart Solution Centralized Activities. This is a very important time that we are living in right now because civil engineering and architecture are also actively introducing different kinds of IT platforms that other companies are knowledgeable about. The reason why we acquire all of these is to become capable of attracting this new trend on our side and grow mutually and to be capable of introducing new features to our business and to our employees as well. This also attracts great interest to people who would like to work in this area. The lack of human capital is one of our social problems. To make the working environment stress-free and more attractive, we have to adopt these trends. Furthermore, our current business strategy is introducing a new branding business and diversifying our business more into the fields of open-innovation and attracting young people to come and work with us.


In your specific case you already have some overseas projects - such as in Indonesia, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar,  etc - what is your international strategy and what strategy are you implementing when you go to the overseas market?

The key factor here was already mentioned. It’s actually a kind of a vice versa approach, meaning that we are not in one area by ourselves. We actually go to the areas that we think are going to be having a problem with the water. The water is the key factor here, it is the door to be able implement civil engineering projects. Obviously if there is a problem with procurement of water that inevitably drags the attention of people to be building up some infrastructure such as dams or other facilities. Without water, which is essential to humans and other living creatures in that particular area, nothing can be done. So, we do have some expats working on a business trip basis, going to local areas to investigate and report to us what can be done. Based on the information that we get we introduce different kinds of proposals. That becomes a departure point, that is, getting the accessibility or the purification of water, then one thing leads to another, which leads to the implementation of large-scale civil engineering projects in that area.


Is there any specific country that has caught your attention?

We already see some movements and we already mentioned our projects in Rwanda, that’s just one part of our activities overseas. Obviously, the purification of water problems exists in underdeveloped countries or economically emerging countries. For example, Southeast Asian countries. One instance, we already have an aqua engineering project in Indonesia. This factory of ours has already been doing the purification of water for the local people and serves as a good example for the nearby countries as well. 


Imagine we will come back to interview you again in two years, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company and what would you like to have accomplished by then?

The ideal situation is when we are able to take our masks off and laugh out loud. That’s a goal that everybody wants to reach. Probably the changes within the course of time. We can name several things right now as you can see the company is taking several approaches and has been doing major construction activities and also adopting approaches from other companies such as IT or with the e-Sense. The company is evolving, and it is not stopping on what has been achieved, being capable to respond to the changes of society, evolving the corporate structure, and adapting themselves to the needs; these are the things that the company has been doing.

I’ve mentioned many times about the young people. First of all, they are very hard to find and we have a social problem in Japan where the elderly population is growing and there are decreasing birth rates. Maybe we would be in a situation where there won’t be any younger people who could work in the construction sites. In order to avoid that, as a company that is related to architecture and construction, we would like to be more attractive and friendly. We have accumulated a lot of knowledge in this area, and we would like to be delivering this to the young generations.