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Driving Innovation: Komatsu NTC’s Vision for the Future of Manufacturing

Interview - June 17, 2024

Komatsu NTC, a subsidiary of Komatsu, is leading the way in automotive and semiconductor manufacturing with cutting-edge technology and strategic flexibility. As the industry evolves, President Masaaki Takahashi shares insights on their innovative machinery, global expansion, and future ambitions.

MASAAKI TAKAHASHI, PRESIDENT OF KOMATSU NTC LTD.
MASAAKI TAKAHASHI | PRESIDENT OF KOMATSU NTC LTD.

Our company is a 100% subsidiary of Komatsu, and we provide design, manufacture, sales, and service of industrial machinery. We have our factory here in Toyama and an overseas production site in Dalian, China, with 500 employees. Our three main businesses are our machine tool business, our EV battery business, and our wire saw business. The advantage that we have is that we offer a comprehensive system that caters to every process. For example, in automotive production, there are many different types of machinery within the line. While general-purpose machine tool manufacturers excel in offering proposals for machining centers alone, we have an advantage in offering solutions for integrated automotive production lines.

We provide a holistic and comprehensive production system that ensures the production of each engine. General-purpose machine manufacturers can be competitors in this field. We provide specially designed production lines and support our customers' production with high production technology and high quality, which is completely different from the business mindset of general-purpose machine manufacturers. We provide our system to the world's leading car manufacturers. For example, a high proportion of the machinery used by Japanese companies for cylinder heads is machinery that we provide. Additionally, overseas car manufacturers use our machinery for engine processing in high proportion. Our business mindset is different from other general-purpose machinery manufacturers. We also provide machines for crankshaft and camshaft processing, as well as grinding and valve processing machines. When it comes to providing processing machinery, we have a high market share in the field, and our machines are used by car manufacturers and related companies all over the world.

We also have our semiconductor business, in which we provide machinery used for processing ingots. Semiconductor ingots can be cut into wafers. Globally, we have a high share of the wafer production machinery market. Regarding EVs, we are now focusing our business on battery-manufacturing machinery. Support for processing machinery for Gigacast is under consideration.

The challenge that we face is that demand fluctuates greatly in terms of the amount and timing of our customers' capital investment. To mitigate this fluctuation, we are trying to increase the capabilities of our workforce so they can design and manufacture any type of machinery. Our target is to diversify our business and increase the capabilities of our workforce so that they are versatile. This will allow us to adapt to the fluctuations in our business.

For example, when making engines, there may be about 30 units of equipment used in production. We discuss the specifications of the engine with our customers and plan accordingly to create the whole system to ensure effectiveness.

Komatsu NTC is a line builder capable of producing entire systems based on our own design. We have been focusing more on the EV battery field with the advent of EVs. Each customer requires different types of production lines, and we can cater to these demands, which sets us apart from our competitors. We provide production lines that can perform from the cutting of materials to creating one whole piece. We have machining centers and grinding machines, and we can also make a turnkey line as well. Regarding engine valve production lines, around 30% of global engine valves are made using our products.


What is the difference when compared to your competitors?

Our high level of design and production technology enables us to provide customer-specific production lines. We are one of the few manufacturers that can fulfill customer requirements in terms of cycle time, size, and material of the workpiece to be processed.

Our strength has been in the production of our engine processing machinery. However, there will be less demand for engines in the near future, so we have shifted our focus more towards EV batteries. There are three different types of batteries: circular, square, and laminated. We are now striving to become a manufacturer capable of providing comprehensive lines of automotive battery manufacturing equipment. There are manufacturers in the world who can do this, and we want to be like them. We are currently enhancing our technical capabilities so that we can provide our services in many new areas. However, we want to speed up our development in the areas we cannot provide our services to yet so that we can provide a holistic service to our customers.

Komatsu NTC meets the rising needs of automotive battery manufacturing, especially with the rise of EVs. Your equipment, like tab forming and lid welding machines, is well-regarded by battery manufacturers. Adapting to industry changes, you now offer complete assembly lines with advanced features like high-speed conveyors and image inspection systems. Your latest machines for stacking, winding, and module assembly showcase your dedication to innovation.

 

Can you explain the unique processing method used in the laser tab forming machine that enables both high-speed and high-precision laser processing and its impact on the efficiency and precision of electrode plate production?

Our company’s business started with machine tool designing. We have extensive history and experience in the designing and manufacturing of industrial machinery, as well as laser technology, inspection technology, and image analysis technology. The tab-forming equipment we developed encompasses all the experience and knowledge that we have accumulated through our machine tool production. By adding image processing and laser cutting technology to this, electrode sheets can be fed at 120 meters per minute and simultaneously and continuously cut at this speed with a laser. Since the sheet has paint on the surface, when it is cut by laser, particles sputter out. This requires technology to capture these particles. Sometimes the cut may not be smooth or may not be completely cut. We use image processing and laser to minimize defects. For example, when it is cut by laser, the particles may act like dust, which damages the sheet. The structure is designed to ensure that the dust generated can be removed by a dust collector. The sheets can also be cut straight according to the required accuracy. Cutting is checked by a camera during laser cutting. Our wire saws are effective for slicing silicon ingots for semiconductors. The wire saw slices silicon ingots by pressing them against a wire stretching. The latest trend for silicon ingots is 300 mm in diameter.

Managing the thickness of the ingots and the cutting conditions of different types of materials can be difficult. Thermal control is also important since the wire saw generates heat when cutting. This can affect the quality of the cut surface and prevent high-quality cutting. We use our unique technology to manage thermal generation during the cutting process.


In addition to ingots, you also have the ability to cut materials such as quartz and crystal. Do you also use the same technology to do so?

Yes, we use the same technology for materials such as quartz and crystal. This technology is used for LCD glass. We also cut magnets and sapphire for LCDs.


Tab forming equipment


Are there any new materials you are looking to penetrate and introduce to your machinery?

Our wire saw is good for cutting expensive materials. For example, an ingot is very expensive. Diamond wire saw processing minimizes the loss. For other less expensive materials, you can use ordinary cutting saws. However, more expensive materials require high-end machinery. Solar panel wafers were also cut using a wire saw. Our wire saws had a high share globally. We expanded our sales to the Asian region but were unable to compete on price and lost market share. We have used these reflections in our current wire saw business.

 

It is interesting to hear you mention all of these materials applied within the ingot as well as tension control and thermal dissipation control. On top of this, we know that your machines offer fine-line technology like diamond wire. Can you elaborate on the benefits of adopting this fine-line technology, specifically the diamond wire, in semiconductor equipment processing and how it enhances precision efficiency in wafer processing?

The processing time is reduced by half, allowing our customers to double their productivity using this wire saw. The advantage of the diamond wire saw compared to conventional cutting saws is that it emits fewer particles and is more environmentally friendly. It also pollutes the air less. As a result, our customers are increasingly adopting diamond wire saws. Photovoltaic cell cutting is also done using these diamond wire saws.

 

You mentioned that 10 years ago a Chinese company took over the market in which you had been one of the leaders. As a company involved in key industries from machining centers to batteries, semiconductors, and EVs, what are you doing to prevent this type of situation from happening again in the near future? What sets you apart from your competitors globally?

Our strategy is to secure our technology using our software. This is especially the case for our wire-saw technology. We consider the best sales strategy for all our businesses, taking into account the various risks involved in doing business globally.

 

Your company provides solutions such as your Smart-FTL for the automotive industry. The Smart-FTL uses IoT technology for labor saving and increased productivity. Here we can find machinery such as the CX500, which meets the elevated EV demand by combining traditional production methods with IoT technology. How does this Smart-FTL technology leverage IoT technology, and how does your Komtas system contribute to labor saving and increased on-site productivity?

This is the FTL production line that we introduced in Komatsu’s Oyama factory. Komatsu uses this line to make versatile engines for construction machinery. However, the tools that are standardized in the machinery cannot meet the production needs. In conventional machinery, the operator changes the tool manually. Instead of manually changing the tools, our FTL line has a tool stocker that automatically swaps the tools. This allows us to swap the tool without stopping the line. Changing the tool also requires the jig to be changed. The jig is heavy and requires the use of forklifts to swap it. However, the Smart-FTL system allows automatic swapping and installation of the jigs as well.

 

Are you looking to export this technology overseas?

This technology will now be deployed abroad. Our KOMTAS tool monitoring system constantly monitors the amount of production and the status of the tools being used. For example, springs are used in the tool clamping mechanism. If the spring deteriorates, the cutting tool loses its sharpness, resulting in reduced productivity. As part of our preventative maintenance, our KOMTAS software monitors the status of the tools in a timeline. The system can also visualize what is happening at the tip of the workpiece. If the tip is worn out, the effect is clearly seen in the process. KOMTAS automatically stops the production line if it detects the wearing of the cutting tool. KOMTAS fault detection prevents the outflow of defective workpieces. KOMTAS constantly monitors the tools and therefore prevents defects from occurring around 90-95% of the time.

FMS lines are a specialty of general-purpose machine manufacturers. An FMS line combines a machining center, pallet changer, and pallet stocker. It is a good system for making versatile products for high-mix, low-volume production. In contrast, our Smart-FTL is targeting not so much versatility, but rather more of a mid-mix, mid-volume product variation. For example, workpiece A enters, and if we want to enter workpiece B, Smart-FTL performs changeover automatically before the workpiece processing starts and requires no downtime. Smart-FTL helps customers improve their productivity.

 

Throughout this interview, we have seen how your company has focused on three main fields as you mentioned: machine tools, batteries, and semiconductors. In the future, what business field are you looking to strengthen your presence in and continue your corporate growth?

Facility suppliers are always struggling. When there is demand, it is very high. However, in some months the demand can be low. As I mentioned earlier, the demand fluctuates quite often.

 

What are you forecasting for the next 12 months for your company?

The order plan for this year has been met, and we are now working on the year 2025. We want to focus on the machine tools sector and the semiconductor sector. However, these sectors tend to fluctuate. The demand in the battery sector also fluctuates. We want to have less fluctuation and even out the differences. To do so, we are looking for new projects.

 

In addition to focusing on the domestic market, we know that your company has built a strong network overseas, having a presence in Germany since 1992. You are also present in India, China, Thailand, and Indonesia, as well as in North America in countries such as the US and Mexico. Where are you interested in further expanding your international operations, and are you looking for distribution partners, or would you be open to establishing more local operations through subsidiaries or M&A?

When it comes to the engine business, Southeast Asia and India are growing markets. Rather than M&A, we want to focus more on technical alliances and partnerships with local companies in those areas. That would mitigate the risk, as when the economy is not doing well, it becomes a fixed burden on us. The overseas bases that we currently have already have customer bases, so we do not plan to expand. China is the most advanced country when it comes to EVs. In the past, Japan was sharing technology with China. However, we are now learning from China, and our local subsidiary in China is playing a pivotal role in our business. We closely monitor market information in China.

 

Are you only focusing on the Southeast Asian market for the engine business?

We do not assume that it will be 100% EV. For sure, there will also be hybrid and PHEV, and therefore there will still be a demand for engines. We want to ensure that we understand our customers' requirements for engine processing equipment and meet their needs.

 

Your company is celebrating its 79th anniversary this year. Imagine that we come back six years from now for your 85th anniversary and have this interview all over again with you. What would you like to tell us? What dreams and goals would you like to have achieved over the next six years, and how would you like your company to be seen in the eyes of international business partners?

The world is changing rapidly. However, regardless of these massive changes, manufacturing will continue to be required and facility makers will continue to play a vital role in the industry. The better the production machinery a facility manufacturer can provide, the better the products of the customers. It is therefore our mission to constantly enhance our technology and provide cutting-edge processing machinery to our customers. You cannot foresee what will happen in five or ten years. Therefore, we need to be flexible. While we may be a totally different company conducting business in other fields, we want to remain a strong facility manufacturer and hopefully be the number-one facility maker in the world. We also want to work together with our customers to enhance the technologies that are used.

The industry could completely change 10 or 15 years from now. Our customer portfolio may change, and what our customers are manufacturing may also change. We want to always be ready to adapt to the new types of manufacturing required by our customers. These are my goals for the future.

 

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