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FCC: Clutch maker seeking new possibilities for its long-cultivated technology

Interview - January 12, 2023

Japan’s premiere clutch manufacturer is expanding its core technologies to target exciting new applications in advanced material science.

YOSHITAKA SAITO, PRESIDENT OF F.C.C. CO., LTD.
YOSHITAKA SAITO | PRESIDENT OF F.C.C. CO., LTD.

Can you tell us a little more about your monozukuri, and the strengths of FCC that allow you to compete in the global market?

First of all, let me talk about the philosophy of the company. In terms of the written philosophy that we have, it's quite general. It is to utilize our technology and our ideas to contribute to the world, to the general public. That's only the written part and it's quite general, I would have to say.

In preparation for this interview I was actually interviewing my employees about what they thought were the company’s strengths, and they were saying that they were very mindful of abiding by QCD (Quality, Cost, and Delivery) and what the customers really require, and to deliver based on that.

You might think that's a very normal thing to do, but doing the normal thing is often extremely difficult. Perhaps this is a part of Japanese culture or character, but abiding by QCD seems to be the standard, and every single person is able to do that in a normal manner. They just think it's a regular thing. I guess that’s an unwritten part of our employees‘ philosophy.

In terms of why we were able to succeed and maintain this position, our strength is that we’re instantly able to respond to customers if we send them products and they need us to change something. Our strength is our capability to adjust to the requirements coming from customers.

Actually, the clutch world is a bit unique because, first of all, there are engines that clients develop on their end, and then we develop the clutches to fit the powertrain. They might say that the clutch doesn’t feel quite right, so each and every detailed requirement can change depending on the model they develop. We can respond instantly to those changing requirements, and that could be our strength in the clutch product field.

We call it the PDCA cycle, and we're incredibly fast. I think that's a strong capability of ours. I want to explain why we are able to respond quickly. We haven't done this in a strategic way. It just happened. We just realized we had this strength. We have this unique organization that can respond to requirements from customers, and we can listen to what customers are saying and absorb it.

At a normal clutch manufacturer, in the development team they would have the mechanical designer, and they would have people that do testing. That's the conventional way, but in our company the development team also includes a person that develops the friction material. This person will be in the same team, so when a requirement comes in, we're able to respond with that one team.

That is our strength, though we hadn’t constructed this team strategically or anything. It just happened as a natural process. On top of the development team, we have strong collaboration with our factory staff and also the manufacturing R&D personnel. This is a key part of our competitiveness.

Just to summarize, what I was trying to say is that when a customer has a requirement and says that they want something, we have both the capability and the organization to be able to instantly respond.

 

The automotive industry is seeing huge shifts both from traditional engines to EV’s and from heavier materials such as steel to lighter ones like aluminum. New issues involving heat management and electromagnetic interference are also emerging. Can you tell us more about what impact the electrification of automobiles is having for your business, and what steps you've taken to respond to these changes?

As you know, the automotive industry has been heavily impacted by CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric). It’s said that clutches will gradually disappear. Not instantly, but gradually. We are trying two main activities to combat this trend.

The first activity is in the mobility world that we basically serve. We already have some market share, we know the market, we know the customers. We know that we have global locations, we have plants all over the world, and to some extent we know the technology. Essentially, we know what customers in this field require.

Even in this CASE era, we still want to go ahead and serve the mobility world. Of course, motorcycles and automobiles are both part of mobility, but towards this CASE era we're trying to develop new products. How we're doing so is through our core technologies. First of all, we have the aluminum die casting technology, which would be necessary for the lightweight trend and also for heat management, which we mentioned.

We also have paper, which would be the functional material, and we also have steel forming-machining technology. Strength in adhesion and welding technology perhaps could be our featured know-how. For the adhesion, that could be seen in our unique friction material bonding technology in our Clutch Friction Discs. We also have strength in welding technology, not only for steel-steel welds, but also joining dissimilar materials, being aluminum and copper, or iron and aluminum for example. We can bond them together, shaping them to become a module.

As we have various elemental technologies, even in this CASE era, we believe we can come up with functional combined material products.  For instance laminated stacks for e-motors and rotor shafts.

As we have chemical products and material, perhaps we can combine these shafts with our chemical technology. This applies for both motorcycles and automobiles. I was supposed to say this earlier, but our unique capability as a company is that we're able to chemically multiply mechatronics. This is very unique. I don't think a lot of suppliers are doing this.

The second activity we're doing is related to our core technology that we initially used for paper but found that it can also be used for fields other than mobility. We are in development to utilize our paper technology for environment purification and energy solution applications. Our core technologies are being implemented for non-mobility sectors, as well as fuel cell products.



Can you share an overview of your key products and technologies?

I am eager to share with you some details of our ceramic paper technology. I mentioned that a characteristic of our ceramic paper mix is that you can make it very thin, but if you want to make it thicker, we have a way to do that. You can do the lamination in layers so you're also able to get the thick ceramics, which I believe is very interesting as a characteristic.

When you're doing the lamination, I mentioned that in the burning process, the initial fiber is gone because it's burned. We also have some multi pored material that's finer, so we can combine them to create a gradient effect.

I’d just like to talk about the graduation of the porosity which is possible. Even if it's the same ceramics, there are various types of material so for example, if it's only one plate, you can combine material A and material B so that the top surface will be material A and the back of it will be material B.

With that sort of combination, for example, you can have both sides solid with the contents being more porous. This could be applied to heat insulators used to fire MLCC’s for example. Among the other possibilities we can imagine is, for example, when we create artificial bones, then maybe we can have more porosity on the surface, which would make it easier to assimilate and replace the actual bone with the actual bones of the body. We think that there are a lot of possibilities for applying this technology.

We’ve already been able to launch a catalyst for stoves and we've also been able to launch a gas catalyst for small engines, but we want to further apply this technology to develop more products.

In the automobile sector, of course the trend is towards electrification and the key phrase, I believe, is heat management. By utilizing these kinds of sheet structures, we can contribute not only to heat insulators but also electrical insulators, since we’re dealing with ceramics.

It's not a direct product linked to electrification, but we think that this can be used for peripheral protection insulating purposes. We go to a lot of exhibitions and exhibit our products there, and we receive a lot of consultations from customers regarding these things I just mentioned. It really showcases how much interest there is already from the market.

We’re using aluminum with heat insulation to offer new products. We use aluminum die casting for applications such as motorcycle applications. These feature the core competence of FCC technologies, and you can see how intricate the detail is in the functioning of the clutch itself, which uses that technology.

We've been showcasing some of our capabilities, and one is a thin wall that can be used in casings and covers. The sidewalls are .7 millimeters in thickness and without any draft angle. Die casting usually comes with a certain degree of angle so that it can be pulled out from its die itself, yet we were able to do this without any draft angle, meaning that we can do a lot of precision details of shapes. In locations where you needed a lightweight material but there was also exposure to heat, you couldn’t go with a plastic case. Now with our aluminum cases, it’s possible.

In comparison to plastic cases, there's less radio interference with electronic boards, so this is also an advantage. Also, in expanding diecast technologies, we're doing this ‘pin’ type heat sink, and such detailed shapes are also not common elements in die casting. Utilizing these technologies that we’ve inherited and developed with clutch applications, we're trying to promote the use of this technology in other electrical products.



As for motors, we've been developing some smaller application motor units such as 3.5 kW applications focusing on small size motorcycles or trikes. Of course, the world will be more and more EV-oriented, so we want to be able to offer electrical-oriented products to the world, as well as our clutches.

For automotive areas, we are doing the stamping of laminated rotors and stators, as well as the rotor shaft itself. This is a hollow multi-piece shaft that we offer. Typically, this is a solid piece, not hollow, but we made it in a hollow piece so that in future there will be room for more coolants.

Heat management, again, is one of the key phrases and this hollow structure would enable the coolant to go past, and because it's multi-pieced, more complicated structures and designs are possible. There are a lot of limitations when you try to do a hollow piece from one single piece. The spline, the gears, these kinds of details are not possible, so we are doing it in a multi-piece way.

It seems simple – just weld it together - but it is rotating at 20,000 RPM. The precision that's needed for weight-balancing and the strength required is very difficult to achieve. And this is, again, enabled because we've been doing clutch applications for transmissions.

 

What is your vision for applying these new technologies and what sectors are you targeting?

First of all, I think we’ve emphasized paper here too much. However, we do functional paper as well aluminum die cast and metal forming, and then we would have various bonding technologies which join together as a functional assembly. This is our strength. Paper ceramics is just one example of what we're trying to do in the paper area. We have so many other activities we're trying to do.

We are collaborating with Carbon Fly for their high performance multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWCNT) development, and for the creation of attractive products.

Carbon Fly MWCNTs is unique with its characteristics of high purity and long fiber length. We have agreed to collaborate, combining our know-how accumulated from clutch friction material development, for the creation of attractive products capitalizing (taking advantage) on their MWCNT characteristics. We are working on technology development to uniformly disperse (decentralize) while maintaining the long fiber length characteristics, enabling the application possibilities to various products and society implementation.

First of all, if we talk about paper, the ceramic paper came out and we're trying to look for applications to do with batteries, peripherals and also EV casings and to utilize the heat insulation sheet I was talking about. Our product’s exhaust gas catalyst can be applied to environmental purification, and the character of ceramics is that it has a lot of pores so it is used for heat insulation and also heat resistance as well.

Multilayer ceramic capacitors are heated in furnaces at 1200 degrees celsius, so when they're heated, the container for that needs to be of very high quality or else it will burn in the furnace. We’re very good at applying our technology and products to that purpose. It's also used for lithium-ion batteries, and we're trying to go into that field right now. The paper is just a container. When creating the multilayer ceramic capacitor, for example, that container is crucial. Our product is not the center of the process, but it’s still important.

Of course, there are a lot of ways to utilize normal friction material, but take that aside for now, because we want to talk about what's next. Basically, I think we can divide that into three main segments. First of all, we talked about the container application that we can do, the heat retention that we have, so we can use it for lithium-ion to prevent it burning up, and there's also sound suppression in there as well. It has noise prevention characteristics.

Second is filtration, which is about purifying water, and environmental purification. We're trying to develop UF (ultrafiltration) and RO (reverse osmosis) membranes using our paper technology.  Finally, third is the catalyst. Since our paper can be engineered to a specific porousness so that the reaction is expedited to perform as a reactor or booster, as it could also be designed to a 3D paper honeycomb structure, this becomes ideal as a catalyst support for CO2 absorption applications.

Our unique paper making technology has the possibility of becoming a breakthrough for the social implementation and commercialization of Advanced Functional Materials.

It is not just mixing advanced functional materials into paper but involves know-how in the various methods, including chemical reaction to bond and to secure it to the fibers. This enables F.C.C. to shape and manufacture the product without impairing the original performance of the advanced functional material.

Especially in the field of CO2 absorption, we are making a major shift toward technology development to commercialize applications with innovative absorbents materials.

We are also developing our own SOFC (solid oxide fuel cell) as another example, for CO2 absorption. There are so many products that we're trying to develop from these segments. Our development and analysis units were in “microns”, and became “nano” (F.C.C. also involved in Carbon Nanotube development), and starting its way to atomic or molecular level “angstrom”.

 

You have an ongoing collaboration with Cell Impact, and you're setting up a new demonstration production line which involves an innovative stamping technology for fuel cells and electrolysis applications. Can you tell us more about this collaboration? How did you get together, what are your expectations and what motivated you to find this partner?

There are several other projects as well as the ones mentioned so far. We also talked about our capabilities and element die casting, stamping, and various techniques involved in that.

There's sheet metal stamping. There's a lot of forming, and some forging applications. In Thailand, we have a forming machine doing those forged hubs with the spline teeth incorporated into them, so there's various stamping technologies that we are involved in and we were thinking that we could develop those into the flow plates utilized in FC (fuel cell) stacks.

We've been investigating our method and sheet metal forming technologies and during that process we encountered Cell Impact’s capability. Those large clutch housings involved in clutch applications are produced in our unique process which we call a one-shot draw process.

There are multiple processes involved in forming these products, but we have developed a process called one-shot draw. It's a simple fact that we just do this in one process, one shot, one stroke and I believe Cell Impact and ourselves felt there were similarities in our philosophies. This is because Cell Impact’s uniqueness is that rather than doing a multi stage process, they're able to do a one-stroke forming process. We ultimately decided to collaborate with them to install a demonstration line in one of our facilities next year. This will be the end of January, early February and this is what has been announced by Cell Impact.

We have this forming or stamping technology, and also as an FC product, the reaction surfaces. There’s sealing involved and there are other areas that we may be able to collaborate on - the chemical part of it, the sealing bonding, the joining process. The welding that's involved.

There are a lot of areas that we could collaborate on, and one was the stamping process itself, so we ultimately decided to go with Cell Impact for the demonstration. There isn't anything decided yet beyond the installation of this demonstration line.

 

You mentioned that beyond the demonstration project there are no concrete plans, but are these types of collaborative partners from overseas an area of focus for you, or something that you're interested in replicating in the future?

You're right, we don't have any concrete collaboration with overseas companies, but we are interested in going ahead with this sort of collaboration with overseas partners. I do have to say, though, that sometimes it's a bit difficult for us to find the right partner. It's sometimes difficult for us to get along well and move in the same direction. That being said, we want to move towards that in the future.

 

Are there any particular locations in which you're interested in expanding your presence or strengthening your presence overseas? 

First of all, if you are talking about our intention to create new plans in a region or a country, we're not thinking of that right now. However, what we want to do is exert our strengths in the locations that we already have and where we have already expanded into.

As for where to focus in terms of the regions, it really depends on the content. Let me go one by one. First of all, in terms of the CASE trend for motorcycles, the number one is India. That's especially strong there, so that will be the focus for that field.

The CASE trend for automobiles would involve China and America, and it's difficult to give an order for that because we're not sure of the motivation of the governments in China and the US. For battery EVs and FCVs, it seems that the Chinese government is putting a lot of effort, but again, America is saying that they want to go into this field as well and expedite it, so we want to focus on both areas but we’re not sure in which order.

Moving on to paper-making, or filtration, this might be a bit surprising, but China has a huge need to clean their environment, so we will respond to that. Actually, when we compare China and America, there's more need for purification in China right now so we will focus on that region. Of course, India comes into that field as well. When we're talking about energy solutions, for example SOFC, it's more Japan. Each sector has their own region to focus on and we have teams dedicated to each sector and region.

 

Let's say we come back to interview you again in a few years' time. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company in that timeframe, and what would you like to have achieved by then?

You suggested seven years from now, but actually for us, 2030 is a benchmark and that'll be in eight years. As I already mentioned, this industry is in a transitional period right now, where demand for clutches is set to decline and we would have to really go with the CASE era. How to apply our know-how and technology to this CASE era is a pressing issue for our company right now.

When you come back again in eight years, in 2030, I want to say that we have started launching products into the market for FCs and EVs, and we are able to conduct the transition towards this new era. I would like to showcase that to you in the next meeting.

In the CASE era, it’s about providing not only value-added products but ancillary services too, so I want to be able to tell you that we have been doing that and we're able to expand our capability in that field.

I also talked about environmental purification, and energy solutions. In Japan right now, the hot trend is SDG's (Sustainable Development Goals), and this really fits in with the core of SDG’s, I think. Our company is trying to figure out how to rephrase that. We're mindful of this and we are starting to focus on the health of people and the health of the globe.

Whether or not humanity can be sustained on this earth is really a global issue. I want to say to you that in non-mobility sectors, like the environmental purification or energy solutions, we have started to do something to tackle this issue. It's about having our children’s generation live in a better environment, in a better world, and I want to tell you that we have been able to contribute to a better world for the next generation.

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