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Contributing to environmentally-friendly paper-making

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Interview - April 14, 2021

In one of the world’s oldest manufacturing processes, Ichikawa continues to bring new innovations to ensure production of the highest-quality paper using the lowest amount of energy. We speak with Masataka Ushio to learn more about Ichikawa’s original press-felts, shoe press belts and transfer belts technologies and how they are essential to environmentally-friendly paper-making, and tried and trusted by paper manufacturers across the globe.

MASATAKA USHIO, PRESIDENT OF ICHIKAWA
MASATAKA USHIO | PRESIDENT OF ICHIKAWA

Could you please tell us how Japan is able to maintain its leadership when it comes to high-technological fields through their “monozukuri” process to compete against emerging countries that create products that are lower in quality but cheaper in price?

When we talk about the Japanese culture of monozukuri, the essence of this is to include fine adjustments and technology to suit the needs of the clients. For example, within Ichikawa we have the engineers, technicians, workers and operators in the field and they join hands together with the customers to make very detailed adjustments. It is the same thing with the raw materials, there are fine adjustments that have to be made together with our suppliers to meet the specific needs. That’s the nature of Japan’s monozukuri.

What Ichikawa is providing is not just a stable quality but also some fine-tuned functionality which makes it very convenient for the end-users to use the product. On the other hand, if you take a look at the needs of the customers outside Japan on the global scale some people may not find that much of a value in this kind of high-quality products. There may be many customers demanding reasonable price and quality. That’s probably why you’re seeing that some Japanese companies are losing some of its competitiveness.

However, we are seeing many Japanese companies that are still surviving despite of the competition from the emerging countries. The most successful Japanese companies are the ones who understand the varying market needs for both the products and services in different markets globally.

 

Please run us through the steps that you are taking to be eco-friendly, as a company.

Japan Paper Association has presented “Measures against global warming long-term Vision 2050”. This is the global trend of the whole paper industry. As the paper industry is consuming an enormous amount of energy in order to produce the paper, we are very much focused on being environmentally-conscious, especially in slimming down the use of energy as much as possible. With our products being used in the paper-making process, we woud like to contribute the eco-friendly paper-making environment.

The process in manufacturing paper follows three steps: the forming section, the press section, and the drying section.

The forming section: Pulp and/or old recycled paper are heavily soaked in water making so-called “stock”. The fiber content in stock is about one percent, and the water content is about ninety-nine percent of the mixture. The stock is sprayed out over a thin surface, creating a thin wet paper called “web”. Water is removed from the web throughout the forming section so that the fiber content increases to about twenty percent.

The press section: There are multiple presses in the press secion which squeeze out the water from the paper sheet, reducing the water amount to about fifty percent.

The dryer section: This is an energy-intensive process, consuming most of the required energy. Think of it as when you are ironing your shirt or handkerchief, you are using a lot of heat to evaporate the water. This reduces the water content to about six to eight percent.

It is very meaningful to be able to reduce the water content in the press sections, by doing so, the energy that’s needed in the dryer section is greatly diminished. Because we are manufacturing all of the most critical products for press sections, we are able to contribute and synergize the process of reducing the total energy used for production. We are playing a very crucial role in this process, because as a paper-manufacturing industry, we consider ourselves to have a very important responsibility.

 

In your specific case, how is your company contributing to the paper industry? Do you have any technology that you’d like to share with us and our international readers?

We are manufacturing three types of products: the press felts, the shoe press belts, and the transfer belts for the press sections of paper machines. Globally, there are only three companies that are able to manufacture all of these critical products.

As we have already explained on above, the paper making process uses up and requires a lot of water drainage and consumes an enormous amount of energy. Therefore, if you can reduce the amount of water content in paper by one percent in the press section, it will significantly lower the amount of energy consumption up to four to five percent. That is an enormous impact that can be achieved in the technology that we are going to share with you. This is the way that our company is contributing to the entire industry in terms of more energy-saving and environmental-friendly processes in manufacturing paper. Consequently, this is our biggest goal at Ichikawa.

 

It is said that the paper industry is going to grow in the upcoming years. This is a perfect opportunity to go abroad and capture a new market with their high quality products. As a company that has shares in the global market, how would you take advantage of this? What strategies are you going to use?

Although it is quite a tough situation in the Japanese market, it is relatively stable in the overseas paper & board market. Ichikawa started to explore global markets more than 60 years ago and at this point we have about fifty percent of our sales coming from outside Japan. We are very much focused on supplying our press felts, shoe press belts and transfer belts to global customer base. Because of the high quality and durability of our products, our clients are able to save the total costs and we earn a high reputation.

We have been selling press felt products overseas since the 1950s. Starting in the 1980s, we began selling the shoe press belt as well, and it was a huge success. We are continuously investing in our R&D as well as our machinery to make sure that we are not falling behind big overseas competitors technology-wise. Currently we are expanding our business in selling press felts globally because we have a lot of room for growth since our global market share for the press felt is about three percent as we have been focusing especially on the shoe press belt and transfer belt up to now. We are putting more efforts in our R&D and we are focusing on the continuous quality and productivity improvements and would like to increase the press felt’s global market share.

We currently ranked number 1 or number 2 in global market share for our shoe press belts, and number 1 in global market share for transfer belts. This will be significantly helping to keep our competitiveness.

 

Could you please share with us your R&D capabilities ?

Ichikawa is continuing high-level R&D and capital investment. It is to our pride that the press section is considered the important part in the paper making process in terms of the enviroment issue, etc. In addition to our own R&D resources in Japan, our outsourcing partners, including universities, and also foreign engineers are really supporting us.

With the nature of our products, the actual product performance can be fully evaluated only during the real run in our customers paper machines. To be able to demonstare the product performance we have made our internal testing environment very close to what the end-users will be facing and we are simulating the product performances and that gives us an edge.

The press felts are made of Polyamide. During the the paper making process, the felts wear down little by little and discharge some micro-plastic at the end. It is one of the essential enviromental issues and we would like to develop “biodegradable” products in the future.

 

Your company is seventy-three years old and you have accumulated numerous amounts of technology and know-how. Looking towards the future, what would be your mid-term strategy to continue your corporate growth?

As for our strategies, I have already talked about them throughout the course of our discussion, but one thing we are focusing on now is the press parts, and how to streamline and minimize the use of water, so we can support the more eco-friendly paper-making process. It is also a trend that our clients in the paper-making are in the progress of “labor saving and aging”. It is our wish to assist them by becoming the best partner. Therefore, not only supplying the good quality products, but also improving the knowhow surrounding our raw materials, production processs and structure of the paper machine is extremely important.

Another important thing is how we can retain talented employees in order to achieve all of the above mentioned goals, because we value our human resources. In the paper industry it is a struggle to hire people to join us compared with the IT industry or so. For this reason we treasure the people that we have hired, trained properly, and given the chance to grow as employees. Given the limited manpower resources in Japan, we bring foreign engineers to strengthen our R&D department. Ultimately, we want our customers to enjoy our products and say, “Ichikawa manufactured-products are best in their class.”

 

With Japan’s aging population we’ve seen the decline in the labor force, Japanese companies such as yours are compelled to hire foreign workers. What advantages do they get from working at Ichikawa?

They are working on environmental issues by working at our company. There has been a reduction in the demand for printing & writing paper in the market in general and it will continue to drop because things are going electronic. On the other hand, we could see the potential growth in demand for household paper and paperboard (boxes). Because of COVID-19, we actually have seen a rise in the need for paper towels and brown paper used for wrapping goods. We also tend to replace plastic wrappers with paper these days. Paper is a primary material in society that can be used in many ways which is something that we need to treasure. Again, we can contribute to a more sustainable world by focusing on a reduction of energy in the process of paper manufacturing. Overall, that is a very meaningful thing that our company is doing. That is all we would like to say to the potential talent who would like to join us.

 

Imagine we come back to interview you 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?

While we are playing a very important role in manufacturing paper, we can’t consider ourselves as a global top-tier player as of yet since we have lot of room for growth in global markets. That is why we want to make the methods of our company appealing to our global customers. For the global customers to know about Ichikawa, and to understand our abilities, is important to us. There are big global companies in European regions, it is where the paper manufacturing industry originated. As we speak, we have one European person joining our global management team. He has valuable management experience from these big European companies. Also we have one U.S person leading our North and South American operation as a president of our U.S subsidiary. We are glad to say that we finally have the chance to be seen as ‘on par’ with the major players in Europe and U.S. We believe we could build our way up to a competitive level within this industry.

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