Founded in 1948, Dhowa Technos has been a leading provider of solutions for the Japanese manufacturing industry for more than 70 years. In this interview, president Hirokazu Ono explains that factory automation and optimization remain high priority for Dhowa as the respected company gears itself up for overseas expansion and structural change.
Post-World War II, Japan experienced an economic miracle, and your company has developed at pace with the nation’s own transformation. Why do you believe Japan is strong in automation and what is the quality of its monozukuri that allows Japan to be a world leader in this field?
Historically, automation took place when large companies such as YASKAWA Electric Corporation started introducing repair and maintenance services and improving Japanese manufacturing sites. This country has an overwhelming amount of such on-the-ground manufacturers, and Japanese companies are currently developing solutions in robotization and improving factory lines, therefore introducing more efficient ways of producing things.
What do you feel is the best balance between workers and automated solutions to sustain Japan’s economic development?
Automation is not a recent phenomenon; rather, it has been on Japanese companies’ minds for a long time now. The tendency in this segment has been to favor big companies, for example those in the electrical appliances field, due to their considerable funds and ability to optimize production lines. Not as much attention has been paid to smaller-sized companies. In our case, we foresaw the situation regarding the population decline and introduced variation and diversification in our systems, providing automation and ease of access to even the smallest companies as well as optimal services for all our customers. Another aspect that must be mentioned is speed, which most manufacturing locations require now, as well as scaling up the production size to the level of efficiency that can best serve customers’ needs. It is natural to say that optimization and robotization of many production sites has happened only because of social issues, such as the declining labor force.
Also, sometimes it is crucial to have a partner by our side for them to help provide the best solutions for our customers. Thus, the factory does not conduct assembly and outsourcing, but works as a hub to introduce more partners that test, and then introduce it.
Robotization for FA, consulting firm for all small and mediumsized enterprises
What is your take on the view that automation is synonymous with fewer jobs for people?
I do not see that much risk. There are many social problems, but right now there are not many young people who wish to work in factories in Japan—this is a fact. Therefore, automation will improve production efficiency, and increase the pace of many industries.
On the other hand, there is also the need to employ the specific knowledge of people who work behind the scenes to make sure machines function accurately. From this point of view, IT and DX specialists, rather than simply factory workers, are required. This is the only way to transform many companies’ operation in Japan. Not only those operating on a big scale, but others too.
Japan’s steel industry is the third largest in the world, after China and India, and requires a lot of systemization as well as efforts for decarbonization. What DX technologies does your company offer?
The steel industry, like others, faces global competition. Japan’s steel industry may be third in the world, but no company is completely protected from competition, and we provide solutions for those facing new challenges. As a DX consulting company, we have been introducing drones with new surveillance and maintenance features. We work with many steel works in Japan, and have close contact with them, therefore can attain first-hand information. Automation has not been a big trend in the steel industry, but digitalization is quite big.
On the other hand, attaining decarbonization is hard, since it is hard to implement, and the steel industry is large. We have a team of engineers and professionals who can adjust these kinds of solutions in plants, so the process is ongoing and is happening under different aspects and with different kinds of data. Data management is also important in the steel industry and to our clients. Thus, DX itself is very important.
Inspection and flight services by Dhowa Techno’s Drone Business
Your business serves four different purposes: engineering for factories; system engineering for public infrastructure; factory automation systems; and equipment and tech solutions. Which are you focusing on, and which do you see as having the most potential for future growth?
The business that we prioritize is of course the optimization of the factories themselves. It is very important, and we see the most potential in that. Next is the visualization business, in which we already have product lineups, which helps people visualize different equipment even if it comes from different manufacturers. DX also needs to be included in this potentially very promising business.
Our initial business is the renewal business, which involves providing systems for safety and modern machinery operation. Renewal and FA are complementary to what is happening within the key parts of machines which then synergize with FA and DX, traditionally the challenges in business. We also conduct monitoring, making sure there are no electrical outages. The renewal business itself is in high demand right now, and we can meet the needs of many customers.
What kind of alliances with foreign companies are you looking for in the future?
The background behind introducing cooperation with Dhowa Technos is increasing DX solutions, optimizing production lines, and increasing efficiency and productivity. Although historically, there has been a flip side to this, which is that in many cases, even if the product was good, it was not applicable to monozukuri companies. There is a big gap between the Japanese way of thinking and the monozukuri mindset, mainly historically tailormade ways of doing things applicable only to Japan. It is very hard to implement foreign-made DX solutions in this scenario and for these aspects to compensate one another. Still, we are optimistic and believe working with foreign companies could solve many problems in Japan, and perhaps rather than just copying foreign solutions, these can be tailormade according to the required function itself. In the end, something must change, and we need to find better DX solutions in the long run.
What steps are you taking to make your technology more user friendly?
People who work in manufacturing sites find technology very hard to perceive, and it is hard to get company CEOs to use these systems. Even harder is integrating a company into them. In the long run, there needs to be a change in the way of thinking, especially when it comes to the top management. To remain competitive, this must come from the companies themselves, and Japanese people have been a bit stubborn. How do we change this mentality? Nobody has the answer yet, but this is what is happening at Japanese manufacturing sites. Also, some Japanese companies are doing too much, for example in electronic appliances, fridges, and TV manufacturing; some functions are unnecessary and inefficient. Does the product have to be improved? Of course, but that must come alongside changes in the way of thinking.
Can you tell us what synergies there are within your business that set you apart?
We feel the need to establish synergies throughout many business profiles, and this allows us to connect with many other partners and companies that do similar work, or even those who have technologies that Dhowa Technos does not. Supply is always crucial; without it we cannot introduce better DX and system integration, so it is an important part of that chain. It is also important to have a local system integration network, and it is good to know people around us as well as companies located near us in Kitakyushu. It is also handy to get information from the users’ point of view since they are active in various associations. We gather data and information from these associations and provide it as a finalized package to clients. A local business alliance called Kitakyushu System Integrator Network has been introduced by the Kitakyushu Government, it operates as a guidance platform for a combination of industries. We get first-hand information from them.
Collaboration with Kitakyushu System Integrator Network for Robot Innovation
For example, to solve the problem of food loss and food shortage, a venture company has developed a freezing technology. We collaborate with this company, providing technology and digitalization services, and thus we have been contributing to solving these problems and related social issues.
This is a result of cooperation with start-ups and stems from open innovation. Here, we can develop mutual solutions together, and through this, contribute to achieving the SDGs.
Contributing to the UN SDGs through development of the fast food freezing business
Considering that not only Japan, but also foreign countries face demographic issues, how important is overseas cooperation for your company to tackle this challenge, and are you looking for similar cooperation?
Looking at co-research and co-manufacturing with foreign companies, we need to think about foreign expansion. We established a facility in Thailand in 2012, which also experienced similar problems and required automation and DX. This is the reason we established it in Thailand. The renewal business is something that is required not only in Japan, but developed countries must also introduce it, as well as cooperation. We have a team of experienced engineers who possess a lot of knowledge. We also have our personal education system introduced here in Japan, which already emphasizes cooperation through co-educational activities benefitting both sides.
The number one target areas are ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries, mostly because we already have the facility in Thailand. Through it, we can expand to many countries. Also, the United States is always on our mind; marketing there is very attractive, but the market is saturated. There are many existing solutions, and it is a matter of how we introduce them—therefore, the process can be challenging. For example, we are participating in a panel with US and Japanese companies, and we talk about on-the-ground problems and try to come up with a common solution.
Could you tell us more about your plans for expansion in the United States?
EIM ELECTRIC is our group company manufacturing submersible pumps and related parts. In 2008, EIM obtained explosion-proof certification for submersible motors that can be used for several industrial purposes. EIM is already selling explosion-proof submersible motors in the United States and applying for additional certifications up to an output of 300HP.
This year, EIM is planning to expand their base in North America and increasingly meet customers’ needs with the best solutions.
Explosion-proof submersible motor by EIM ELECTRIC CO., LTD. (Group company)
If we were to interview you again on Dhowa Technos’ 80th anniversary, what goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
I would like to change the perception of the company and structure it as a consulting firm. This is a new structure that we would like to attempt, and we want to be known as a consultancy from now onwards.