While manufacturing is becoming more automated, some processes can never be handled by machines. Eight Tool provides the tools to ensure these processes are done with the highest level of precision.
In the last 30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturing competitors who have replicated Japanese monozukuri processes but have taken advantage of cheaper labor costs. This has pushed Japan out of mass-production markets. Yet Japanese companies are still leaders in niche fields, such as professional tools. How have Japanese firms been able to maintain their leadership despite the stiff price competition?
It is very difficult to compete when it comes to price. For our company, it is hard to significantly decrease the price for the products that we produce, considering the unique materials we use and the amount of time and care we apply to each product. However, we are aiming to produce high-quality products that provide superior performance and work efficiency for the cost. And that is why we believe our products have been accepted by industry professionals for over six decades.
Your company was established in 1958, evolving into a leader when it comes to hex wrenches and your products are sold all over the world. Could you tell us what are the competitiveness advantages of your firm that have allowed you to become successful?
One of our clear strengths as a specialized manufacturer is that we manufacture our products with special alloy steel specifically developed to produce quality hexagon wrenches. The SNCM+V, our unique alloy steel, was originally developed through collaboration with a steel manufacturer in Japan. We aimed to give this alloy steel the ideal balance of hardness and torsional resistance that is specifically suited for hexagon wrench products. Development of this unique material was one of the key factors for us to be able to manufacture quality tools and be accepted in overseas markets.
Another strength is relatively hidden yet quite critical. It is our machining accuracy to achieve strong “fit-ness” of hexagon wrench heads to bolt walls. We produce hexagon wrenches that are used for fasteners such as cap bolts. One of the most critical elements is how it fits on the fastener. When engineers use our wrenches, they feel that the wrench fits very well with the fastener that they are using. And as you turn the wrench to tighten or loosen the bolt, the “fit-ness” makes a big difference in wear resistance and torsional power transmission. While it is quite challenging to achieve the machining accuracy of our wrenches that enables the “fit-ness” on a mass-production level, we strive to maintain the accuracy as a part of our quality standards.
Your SNCM+V alloy is only available in Eight Tool products. Can you tell us more about the SNCM+V, and what are some of its strengths when compared to conventional ones?
When you use a hexagon wrench, you need to turn it using some torsional strength. As it is being turned to tighten or loosen a bolt, there are two elements that are equally important to provide high durability as a tool. One is hardness that ensures wear resistance against bolt walls. Another is torsional resistance that avoids breakage of the wrench. Our SNCM+V achieves the fine balance of these two elements that provide outstanding durability as a quality tool.
We have worked together with the steel manufacturer to find the best mix of different elements. Through trials and errors, together, we were able to develop this new alloy steel and have made minor changes to improve the performance multiple times. We appreciate the manufacturer and have kept a great relationship with them. Although we are a small company, they have provided us with a lot of education and support to develop this new alloy. It really has been a wonderful relationship based on shared passion to produce great products.
When it comes to products that utilize this alloy, one of them is the Excellent series of hexagonal wrenches. Could you tell us more about the Excellent series, and what makes it superior to more traditional hex wrenches?
Our Excellent series of products have specific quality standards to ensure superior performance. In addition, our new EL/ARMOUR plating is applied to these products for enhanced wear and rust resistance. While EL/ARMOUR plating improved our products from previous plating, this unique plating is also developed under environmental awareness and succeeded to achieve its quality without using common yet hazardous hexavalent chromium.
Some of the complaints people have about wrenches is that they do not fit correctly, or they pop out when you are trying to turn them. As you described, the machining process to ensure that it fits was challenging. Could you describe what challenges they were, and how did you overcome them?
It was the result of many trials and errors. As an example, one of our unique and popular features is Taper Head, an enhanced ball-point function that enables a wrench to be inserted into a bolt cap from a tilted angle. This Taper Head’s “ball portion” actually consists of a series of flat surfaces to increase surface contact area with bolt walls, thereby not only improving the “fit-ness” and increasing torque resistance, but also preventing bolt walls from wearing out. To develop this feature, we went through countless tests and re-designs before landing on what it is today. Our skilled engineers have worked very hard to provide products that our customers can feel the difference.
Japan is the world’s oldest society and has a rapidly shrinking population. This presents two main challenges for Japanese firms. The first is a labor crisis as there is a smaller pool of young talented graduates coming through to replace older more seasoned workers. The second challenge is a shrinking domestic market. Could you tell us what are some of the challenges and opportunities Japan’s demographic shift is presenting for Eight Tool?
When it comes to the challenges of the declining population and aging society, we are trying to provide an environment for older employees to be able to continue to work. We believe that their seasoned skill sets as well as their experience and knowledge are advantages for us. We have engineers and other workers over 60, 70, or even 80 years old and would like them to continue their work for as long as possible.
Regarding the recruitment of a younger demographic, being a specialized manufacturer of hexagon wrenches somehow attracts a number of young talents and we are fortunate to have a great mix of both seasoned and younger employees. We are also proud that our company has a very low rate of retirement or resignation especially for the last several years. We currently have 72 employees in Osaka, Tottori, and Tokyo, including our legendary 85-year-old engineer working at our Osaka headquarters.
We know with the demographic shift that many companies are looking to automation as one means to replace the aging workforce. We also know that automation can increase output and efficiency, while also decreasing costs, and this creates a better manufacturing ecosystem overall. How are you adapting to this automation trend at your company?
The weakness for SMEs is that we are not able to heavily invest in automation. While we partially utilize automated machineries to manufacture our products, we are still relying on human skills, which we believe is a key element of our quality standards, to operate and manage those machineries. However, going forward, we are looking into exploring more possibilities in automation. Recently, we launched a production management system that can visualize what is happening in the manufacturing process and enable us to develop better workflow management.
Can you tell us more about your R&D strategy and are there any products that you are currently working on that you would like to showcase to our international readers?
As mentioned above, we have recently developed our new plating, EL/ARMOUR for our Excellent series products. Along with our original material, SNCM+V, and unique features such as Taper Head and Bolt Catch etc., our product quality has once again improved. We tirelessly work to keep improving our products to meet ever-changing requirements and expectations at professional gemba, and to service to our customers satisfaction. Also, while our main market has been B2B industries including manufacturing, MRO, and medical etc., we have also been an official supporter of the Japan Para-Cycling Federation (JPCF) for years and recently started developing some products that are suited for bicycle mechanics, production and maintenance personnel, and cyclists as well. There are diverse needs for fastening tools in every industry and we value the customer’s voice to keep improving our products and develop new ones. In that sense, we accommodate custom orders on a daily basis and have manufactured countless special tools that are very specific to those particular requirements. We continue to strive to meet challenging requirements and provide tools that can be solutions for our customers.
When we spoke to Nitto Kohki, the president, Mr. Ogata, stressed the importance of collaboration and co-creation and how working with partners in the United States was key to unlocking that entire regional market. What role does collaboration play in your business model, and are you looking for any overseas collaborative or co-creation partners?
Our core concept is to manufacture quality “made in Japan” tools and provide them to customers all over the world. Therefore, our manufacturing process has been conducted through close collaborations with various domestic partners. Meanwhile, in terms of promotion and sales, we have a lot of domestic and international partners. These partners from all over the world are very important resources for us not only to service local customers and expand our business, but also to learn diverse customers' voices and demands. We are always looking for new partners with whom we could build long-term relationships to explore new markets.
In 2018, you established Eight Tool America in the US. You also export your products to many nations across Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Moving forward, which countries or regions have you identified for further expansion into? What other strategies will you implement to increase your international presence?
Our goal is to expand our products and services all over the world. To do so, we work very closely with our great partners to grow together and provide better products and services. And we also try to find new partners and customers in various regions. In addition to the US, where we founded our subsidiary in 2018, we are currently promoting our products to several new regions such as Europe, South and Central Asia, Middle East, and Oceania, etc. With our international partners, we try to learn local demands and make sure to provide the best suitable products possible, one customer at a time.
Fastening is needed worldwide in every country. However, with such a high-quality product, where do you see the most potential for your company?
With our product characteristic, it is often industry professional customers we first find in a lot of regions. And that would likely be the case moving forward as well. Having said that, we would like to meet diverse customers and be a part of different kinds of craftsmanship and problem solving.
Imagine that we come back six years from now and have this interview all over again. What is your mid-term strategy, and what goals would you like to have accomplished as a company in the next six years? What message would you like to send to the world, as the president of Eight Tool?
As mentioned above, our goal is to provide our tools and services all over the world, literally. We are a small company with big dreams and are working towards that goal with our partners. In six years, we imagine having customers in more regions and different markets, as well as providing further improved products and services to each customer. It would be great, and we probably would, tell you the same answer at the interview in six years. We would like to keep moving forward.