EARTHTECHNICA is a comprehensive equipment manufacturer that was born in April 2003 by integrating the technologies from Kawasaki Heavy Industries together with Kobe Steel, and today, as a member of the Kawasaki Heavy Industries group, has a proven track record of supplying a large number of crushing and grinding equipment.
Could you give us an overview of your crusher products and their role in the various industries they are used in?
EARTHTECHNICA was established in 2003 by integrating the technologies of crushing and grinding from Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Kobe Steel and is 100% subsidiary of Kawasaki Heavy Industries since 2008. Our company has taken over crushing grinding technology from both Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Kobe steel.
The crushers that we create are part of a very niche industry, and when engineers think about crushing, there are various shapes of things that we have to crush into particular sizes. I think our mission as engineers is that we have to be able to crush every single material that exists in this world. However, crushing it is not equal to destroying the material, so we have to think about the end product and how it's going to be used, as this has a bearing on the method of crushing.
When we talk about crushers, there are no ‘all-type’ crushers. Crushers are highly differentiated into various segments because they need specific systems and mechanisms to be able to crush specific materials.
When we explain crushers to somebody who does not understand crushers at all, we start with the shaft.
There's a shaft which rolls around, and we use a type of mechanism, whether it be completely rolling or by turning, or going back and forth - it will depend on what kind of processing we would like to do.
In the place that we would like to cut the product, we place some kind of cutting material, for example a tooth, hammer or plate.
To give a very easy example, if you try to crush stone then you can use a high-pressure crusher, but if we want to crush plastic, no matter how much pressure you put on it, it’s not going to fully granulate.
When we crush the base material, we have to think of the granularity or the size of the end product. Therefore, we have to really think about the quality or the level that we want to crush it into, so that’s why there are various types of crushers in the world.
At this point, we have 100 engineers and half of them do the machine design and the other half does the plant design. Due to the enormous amount of machines that we have, one engineer has to handle four or five machines. Of course, that particular engineer has a main machine, mostly a popular one, that they mainly work with, but sometimes there are special machines that they are responsible for when an unusual order comes in every 10 or 15 years. In order to crush that material, that particular rare machine is the best, so we can't change it.
In this competitive world, what is very important is to have the right kind of characteristics and knowledge compared to our competitors. Since it’s a niche industry, the demands of the clients are niche as well, so if we can’t respond to their demands, we can't survive in the market.
To put it in a different perspective, our customers are from various types of fields, and of course our main customers are from the mining and aggregates field. However, there are others such as the iron industry as well, electricity and auto, and also there is sometimes powdering for the pharmaceuticals.
What we find is that clearly, in any kind of industry, crushing, milling and sorting are all necessary.
One of the strengths of our industry is that our clients are dispersed across various sectors and fields of Japan, so managing a good company, when of course all fields are not necessarily successful in this market, requires risk management and stability.
Although we are at the leading position in this industry, they’re not popular in the mainstream population.
What are these stones that we crush used for?
They’re used for roads, they're used for cement and mixed concrete to build the buildings that we live in, and when students come for PR and they learn things, I give them presentations. The road that you came here by today contains stones, 50% of which were crushed by our crusher in Japan.
Many of our customers, Japanese steel mills, use our vertical mills to grind coal in their blast furnaces. Basically, most of the steel materials produced in Japan use coal pulverized by our mills in the production process..
Talking about the machines used particularly by mining firms, to give you an example of the cone crusher, I have been involved in the design of the cone crusher ever since I was young. The energy used was 100% 30 years ago, but we have done many modifications of the machine itself. We've changed the shape of crushing chamber, the RPM, and all these things, and we have been able to reduce the energy used by 40%, so now it's at 60% of what it used to be.
That's how we have contributed to saving energy in this world, so we are contributing to the Earth by creating, developing and bettering our crushers, and I think that is our mission.
Our superiority lies in our ability to customize products to meet the needs of our customers, and our people have the "wisdom" and "ingenuity" to meet the different requirements of each customer and the "passion" to achieve it.
We are focusing on the development of new products based on the belief that without our technological innovation and improvement as the top runner in the industry, there will be no technology that will improve people's lives in this field. Speed is the most important factor in proceeding with this development, and trying things first and thinking while running are essential elements for leading to innovative solutions.
Your machinery is very large, and that of course can be dangerous if you don't operate it in the correct manner. When we spoke with other rock drilling companies, they explained how their machinery uses 3D scanning technology to determine the optimal drill position; being fully automated there's no need for workers to be nearby as it operates. In the case of your machinery, can you highlight some of the digital technologies or safety features that you’ve integrated to ensure work safety and efficiency at work sites?
In terms of in the field, In the good old days, it was all up to the experience of the operator, so it was all about how much humidity there was and the effects on the material, and due to that, sometimes the material would shake, and the contents inside would fluctuate, and so it was really up to the method of crushing and how much pressure you put onto it.
It was really up to the gut feeling or the experience of the operators, but now with these trends, as you have mentioned, automation and using all these sensors is popular in trying to manage a very stable condition in the field.
We started that three years ago in Thailand. We wanted to go over there, have a look and do a test run by ourselves, with our engineers, but due to covid, the country was completely blocking us from entering.
However, we have delivered to them a product that has all of the sensors which we can monitor, so from Japan we have given instructions to the people there, and we have done the test run by monitoring it from Japan with instructions, and all the data which has been gathered will come to Japan, so we can look at it to check that everything is normal.
Of course, we really wanted to go in person and have a look at what the field was like, but we couldn't, so we gave advice and feedback from the Japanese side.
We can determine the capacity and size distribution from the data gathered by the 3D camera. When you look at the cameras, of course a 3D cam only looks at the surface, so you cannot see how many rocks there are, but there is actually some top-secret knowledge that we have of size distribution that is probably being implemented.
In the past, human operators were conducting visual inspections by eye, and they were adjusting up and down the discharge level setting to make it a little bit smaller or bigger, but now we have the data so it all gets calculated automatically, and it’s changed automatically as well. Actually, this 3D imaging is very high-level technology, so we asked Corporate Technology Division of our parent company, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for design cooperation.
Competing companies with the same size of business as us find it very difficult to have an R&D capacity of that size, but since we are in the Kawasaki Heavy Industries group, with several trillion yen in sales and that engineering and technological edge is, I think, what we have over our competitors.
One of the main reasons that we see the integration of digital tools in the workplace is not only because they're safer, but also because automation is playing a key role with the population changes both here in Japan and throughout the world. Japan has a low fertility rate and an aging population, meaning its population will drop below 100 million by 2050. How is your business is reacting to these population changes?
Especially in terms of the domestic Japanese market, due to the decreasing population and in terms of the business in Japan, our company has the goal of increasing our sales, of course, but looking at Japan, if we don’t do anything, then of course the sales wouldn’t go up and so we need to do something new.
We need to go into new sectors, fields or markets, and in order to do so, we are currently working on the research and development of our technology although what I always say to my people is to not try to enter into drastically different markets.
We just need to look around and see opportunities continuously in sorting and crushing.
What I always tell them is to “look around you and then try to enter a field which is not a giant step, but a half step away from you”. That's where we aim for. That's what we always tell them. The second point will be recycling, which I will talk about next.
One other keyword in expanding the business is regulation, or control. In terms of plastic waste, there is container recycling law in Japan which covers where you gather the softer plastic that's used for a lot of things like packaging and so on. Recently this law has been revised so that not only this soft plastic, but harder plastic also will be gathered by the municipalities to process. These hard plastics include CD cases and files that you use, so we are conducting research on this new equipment. We asked our customers to put a test prototype to run them as well, for efficiency.
In today's carbon-neutral world, the businesses of steelmakers, who use large amounts of coal, are facing major challenges. Blast furnaces, which are currently the mainstream of iron manufacturing, emit a large amount of carbon dioxide. And electronic furnaces, which are considered as one of the alternative technologies, are known in the industry for not producing high quality steel. We believe this needs to change.
Traditionally, we did not put high-quality, hard, thick H-steel into electric furnaces, but that trend is changing and we are putting these high-quality steels into electric furnaces. The selection is thorough and the raw material H steel is of high quality, so if you put it in, you can get high quality steel even in an electric furnace.
In the past, H-steel was cut by guillotine and put into the electric furnace, but from now on, a large amount of processing will be required, and the guillotine cannot keep up with the processing amount.
The alternative is a steel shredder.
The demand for large steel shredders is increasing and needs to be bigger. In the Japanese market, I think the maximum power is 3,000 to 4,000 horsepower, but if you look overseas, these shredders are operating at about 10,000 horsepower. We are currently developing this large shredder.
Another one of your new products is the LaVortex, which is a continuous production system for wet granulation and drying. One of the advantages of this system is that it can replace batch production, making it faster when it comes to granulating processes. Can you tell us first a little bit more about this particular technology and secondly, what are some of the applications?
In terms of applications and sectors, the biggest one is pharmaceuticals and the second biggest is chemicals. Chemicals and medical, the end product is something that is porous and granular and therefore anything that has that shape involving pharmaceuticals, medicine and food, for example, soup. In terms of this particular machine, we first focused on the medical field, where the batch or the amount is smaller compared to food processing, so if clients would like to create it in smaller numbers, I think it will fit those clients well.
LaVortex is a newly developed system that can completely continuously process granulation and drying processes, which were conventionally performed in batch mode. Batch production was the mainstream in the pharmaceutical industry, but there were problems with complicated operations and labor-intensive operations.
LaVortex adopts a new process analysis technology (PAT), which enables advanced quality control in continuous production, achieving stable production and labor saving. Compared to conventional batch-type equipment, this product has improved disassembly and cleaning performance by reducing the number of parts and reducing weight. Granulated products can be easily produced.
With the batch method, there was the problem that if you produced multiple batches with defects, they would all be defective. LaVortex uses new sensing technology to detect defective products and automatically correct settings to do a new run and produce a modified version of the product. By constantly controlling the setting level, it is possible to stably produce high-quality products continuously.
Your company has no overseas offices, yet you are extensively present worldwide through technical cooperation and partnership agreements. You've been doing this since 1951 when you partnered with an American firm, Allis Chalmers. You now extend similar partnerships with Tomra Sorting, a Norwegian company, as well as with German, Danish, Korean and Chinese ones. Moving forward, what kind of company for partnership have you identified as being next, and where are you looking for that partner?
If we had the capacity to send expats everywhere, for example Southeast Asia mainly, we would, but that is of course difficult, so we find a partner who sells it for us. Therefore, we have these cooperative partners overseas to sell the products, but in necessary times, of course, our salespeople and engineers do go directly overseas to do the pitching.
Our strength is our ability to customize products to meet the needs of our customers, so we collaborate with partners who have a spirit of challenge rooted in the local area.
Our crushing products are widely used in the mining, cement and aggregate fields mainly in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, South America, and we believe there is a chance to sell Japanese recycling technology to these regions.
In the very long future, I hope very long, one day you'll retire and there'll be another president. At that moment, is there a goal or an ambition or an objective that you would like to achieve during your time as president of EARTHTECHNICA?
In terms of my experience, the first 10 years was in mining, and for the other 27 years after that it was mainly plastic and recycling. What I am very thankful of during my time at EARTHTECHNICA and also Kawasaki Heavy Industries, is that whenever the company wanted to start something new, they always raised their hand and gave me the opportunity to work on it. Looking back at my track record, and at my time at EARTHTECHNICA and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, I think that I had an opportunity to lead and experience a lot of things which had no predecessors. In the field of plastics and recycling, and it's effective use, I have strong confidence that the machines that I have created and delivered do great good to society as a whole. I do not have anything concrete to say in terms of ambitions but, as an engineer, if I can contribute further to making recycling more and more effective, then I think there would be nothing better.
There is a new field in chemical recycling which our company does not particularly have a direct relation with because we're not chemists, we don't know about the chemistry itself. However, we do have expertise in making recycling effective, so I think in terms of how to correctly sort materials and feed them into whatever it may be - the crushers or the pelletizers – I think we have the know-how. I have studied chemical recycling over the past few years, and what I have found out is that when you try to do chemical recycling, you return plastic back into fuel, it’s original state. However, when you try to return a material back to its original state, not everything is easily returnable, so it's very important to select the material which can be returned easily, and that method has been established recently. If we are able to apply the expertise that we have used so far, for example in the field of sorting, then I think it'll be a great business chance.
I won't go into too much detail, but it isn't recycling as we know it. The recycling that I’ve been involved with in the past was all thermal recycling, so you were burning plastic. The level of recycling where you can return the material to its original state, I think there's various forms of evaluation for recycling, but turning something back into its original state is something which requires high techniques and legacy techniques as well. If I could use my expertise to improve recycling effectiveness, particularly in the new field of chemical recycling, there would be nothing better to have as my dream.
EARTHTECHNICA celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023. In order to achieve the social issues of net zero and the transition to a circular economy, we will continue to develop technology and continue to release products that can contribute to society.