Sanwa Shoko manufactures washing, welding and polishing machines used in the maintenance and repair of equipment for molds. Kohei Hori sat down to discuss the company’s unique products, such as its series of Wave Clean supersonic wave mold washers, and its most popular product, the ultra-precision mold padding welder, SWV02 – a tried, tested and trusted analogue machine that has hardly changed since it entered the market more than 40 years ago.
Can you give us a brief introduction to your company and business field?
Our company manufactures, maintains and repairs equipment for molds. While molds support the international manufacturing supply chain, their importance is largely unknown to end consumers and even to certain manufacturers.
Sanwa Shoko was founded in 1967 by my father. At that time, a major automotive equipment maker manufactured discharge deposition equipment which experienced slow sales. My father analyzed the said machine and understood that if brought to another business field it could be well-sold. Consequently, he negotiated with major automotive equipment maker's management and got an exclusive contract as a sales agency. Together with the discharge deposition equipment, our business started by selling supersonic lapping machine, a polishing machine for molds.
We began our business as a sales company but my father dreamed of becoming a manufacturer. As shown on our business card in Kanji, our company is called Sanwa Shoko. The “Ko” means manufacturing. The name Sanwa Shoko incorporates his dream to be a manufacturer.
In 1996, the major automotive equipment maker announced that they would stop manufacturing discharge deposition equipment and supersonic lapping machines. They gave us the right to produce the supersonic lapping machine and we became a manufacturer. This was the same year I entered the company. In 2003, my father passed away and I assumed the presidency. From 1996 onwards, we began a welding machine business and diversified in welding and polishing machinery. After I became the president, we implemented another process in the maintenance of molds: washing. So, we had washing, polishing and welding as part of the process of mould maintenance.
At the eve of the fourth Industrial Revolution, many industries are experiencing tremendous change due to innovative technologies. What have the changes been on your products such as your SW-V02 or your most popular product, the supersonic lapping machine?
In the fourth industrial revolution, the key words are automatization, minimization, AI and IoT. It is difficult to judge presently what the direct impacts are on our company or field of business. The backbone of my answer is that the maintenance of molds has two features. On the one hand, we utilize sophisticated techniques and expertise when it comes to repair and maintenance. On the other hand, our hardware remains analogue. We have many contracts in the analogue field. For example, even when a mold is manufactured by an expensive machine, there is still a margin of error. If there are gaps or folds of several micro millimeters, it has to be polished by human hands as machines cannot yet reach that level of precision.
We have continuously sold the same machine for 42 years. Our end users call us a “big miracle.” Of course, it was updated from SW-V01 to SW-V02, but the basic function has not changed, which is why our customers consider it a miracle. From a machine tool’s point of view, there are machines which automate the polishing process. Some machine tool producers have been trying to produce automated polishing machines but these are not widely used at the moment. When they polish the molds, they need wet stones. If the stones have some faults, only human hands can repair it. So machines cannot replicate or change the work done by humans; and this trend is not going to change anytime soon.
Do you have new products currently under development?
Yes, we are inventing a new washing machine. The design and R&D process has already finished. We are planning to exhibit this machine at the JMTOF, and after that we will begin selling it.
You mentioned before that your clients called you a miracle because the basic function of the machine hasn't changed. In today's manufacturing world, we are seeing many replicas. In a field such as yours, a field with basic functions, how did you succeed in creating that miracle?
My true feelings about the matter is that we were lucky. As far back as 50 years ago, we were the first-comers in this field. Of course, our machines and technologies have been replicated in a variety of products, not only in Japan but internationally.
I'm very proud to know that the name Sanwa Shoko is associated with “pioneers of mold maintenance.” 40 or 50 years ago, there were basic step-by-step approaches and strategies introduced by our salespeople to launch our products to the field. As we were the pioneers in discharge deposition equipment and supersonic lapping machine, the leverage of being the first gave us a strong penetration in the field. When our customers hear the name LAPTRON, their first image is that of a polishing machine for molds. It is similar to how when people hear Walkman, they imagine a product for listening to music.
Throughout the years, your company has expanded beyond the Japanese border. Sanwa Shoko started exporting overseas in 1984 to Hong Kong and China. Could you tell us more about your international strategy?
We have a sales network in Europe, East Asia, the United States and Mexico. When we expanded our international sales network, we asked local companies to act as sales agencies for Sanwa Shoko. Our sales network today expands all over the world. However, I don't think it is perfect in every country. As our service is unique, it cannot be sold through catalogues or over the phone. What is 100% needed are demonstrations before our end-users and customers. In order to have good results, educating our clients is a must. Our sales staff actively follows up with our sales agencies. When I speak of regional markets, the most important one is the EU because we have an old and very strong network in Germany. Starting from Germany, we sell our products all over Europe.
In mainland China, we have encountered difficulties because of plagiarized products. While China has incredible manufacturing power, we must acknowledge the replication risk and combat it with our strength: strong manufacturing and excellent service.
What is your mid-term strategy to ensure corporate growth?
Looking at the future, the utilization of molds will not diminish. Over the last years, the automotive market has experienced a surge. As they require a large amount of molds, most of our customers come from the automobile industry. Of course, there are other products such as home appliances or electric machines that cannot be produced without molds. However, the automotive field will remain the largest market for us.
We are currently exploring the possibility of entering new fields. We are certain that our products can be applied to other markets than molds. Exhibitions are great opportunities for us to exhibit what we are doing to fields outside of the mold industry. For example, we believe that our welding machine can be applied to metalworking or tool processing. Slowly and carefully, we are seeking for new pillars of growth.
Could you explain why your products are so important in the manufacturing process?
Molding is a fundamental industry in Japan. To calculate the manufacturing power of a country, one index checks whether the country has an automotive manufacturer, and how many such manufacturers it has. Without molds, automotive manufacturers cannot exist. Consequently, if you analyze the manufacturing power by the number of existing automotive companies, then mould or mold-related companies represent another index. The mould industry is fundamental to any country. More and more people should know about the importance and role of the mould industry. While many people know about Toyota, Nissan and Honda, they are unaware of the manufacturing process. Molds are at the basis of the cars and products they love.
Furthermore, Japan faces a political challenge. The Japanese government has a grant called the “monozukuri subsidy”, but it is only available for machines and tools. More important than subsidies, I believe that we must educate our people, and especially our young engineers. If our government has that kind of grant, I believe it should be invested into the people's education. “Monozukuri” means “manufacturing things.” I prone “Hitozukuri,” where “Hito” means the mind: “manufacturing minds”. While we have fierce competition with our peers, all actors of our industry aim to empower mould manufacturing.
If we came back here in 10 years’ time, what goal or objectives would you like to have achieved for your company?
I do not dream of making our company sizeable. Currently, we have 15 staff in our company and in 10 years, it could be 20 to 25 employees. And maybe our general headquarters will move to another place. But basically speaking, we will keep the same kind of business. Our business is closely related to end-users. As a directive to our people, every salesman and every engineer should be responsible for the management of the company even though they are beginners or low in rank. Sustaining the company is another responsibility for us, and of course paying taxes. Maybe in the future, we can be 120% bigger than our current space. We now have a 52-year track record in our company, and I would like to expand this to 100 years.