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Fine-tuning the difference that sets Mutoh apart

Interview - June 4, 2023

A company that crafts high-quality, high-precision products, Mutoh Holdings specializes in large-format inkjet printers, following the Japanese principle of monozukuri – the pursuit of perfection in manufacturing.


What do you believe to be the core strengths that set you apart from your regional manufacturing competitors?

Mutoh Industry was established upon the development of the Drafter®, which is a platform used for designing. Basically, you place your paper on top of this Drafter to draw out architectural structure designs, and that starting point led to our company evolving into a MUTOH holding company.

70 years ago Mutoh Industry was founded, and all of that growth over the past 70 years has led to where we are today. Actually, this Drafter has been named by Mutoh as our registered trademark.Commonly it is known by its generic name; a drafter. We once had 50% of the global share in drafting boards and draft stations, but with the shift over to digital technology and computer-aided design (CAD), paper-based designing has become obsolete. While the market situation has changed, the Drafter and drafting stations in general have remained legacy products.

To follow suit with the digitalization trends we have developed a new product that prints out CAD designs. Additionally, inkjet technology was introduced to Japan, so we took this technology and integrated it into our printers to develop our own unique line of inkjet printers. Initially, these inkjet printers were 2D, but we have since evolved the technology to be able to print 3D as well.

Could you introduce us to the software side of your business, and tell us about the synergies you are able to create between your software development business and your printer manufacturing business?

As you have mentioned, we are both a hardware and software manufacturer, and our primary product is a large-format printer that integrates different types of technologies. We can adapt to any type of ink, including water-based, UV, or even eco-solvent. Another technology we have is based on printer heads, which use micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS). Additionally, the head contains between 1600-3200 nozzles. Through this nozzle, the chemical of choice is spouted out, but in order to do that we utilize a thin membrane that lies over each individual nozzle on the head. The head is then vibrated at a rate of about 25,000 vibrations per second. I think the uniqueness of our products lies in a special algorithm that we have developed to cater to the waveform of the vibrations. It allows the thin membrane to move effectively, which in turn allows for the efficient application of whatever ink is put into the machine.

The head usually positions itself on the carriage when printing, and proceeds to move both to the left and to the right. As the head moves there is a 0.5-1.0mm gap between the media and the head. As the head moves it has to have the same consistent gap difference or else the ink will not be applied precisely. The bigger the gap between the head and the media, the more precision technology is required. The technology we possess is able to make very fine adjustments of this 1.0mm gap as the head goes either right or left, and it is a requirement to land on the same point to consistently print out quality printing. We are able to combine the strengths of Japanese chemical manufacturing with the strengths of Japanese electronics and mechanical expertise. These elements need to be finely tuned in order to bring out the best features of a large-scale, large-format printer.

I believe you have interviewed many companies in search of the essence of Japanese monozukuri, and I personally feel this ability to fine tune has become the core competency of Japanese monozukuri. Back in the day when you owned a Japanese TV, it might have been a tube TV. That tube TV had a very complicated wiring system that allowed electronic magnetic waves to realize such technology. Additionally, in the automotive industry, anyone can make a car body, but it takes sophisticated technology such as those possessed by Japanese firms like Toyota or Honda to build complicated engines. With this situation Japanese carmakers were able to excel, however, we are now seeing that change with the advent of EVs.

What I have just explained is the amalgamation of Japanese “fine-tuning technology”, and for products such as printers the technology needs to be precise without leeway. With this fine-tuning capability, I think that Japan will still remain a leading power. Let’s take a product like our large format printer, and let’s say that it takes 10 hours to manufacture in the factory. 5 of those hours are required for assembly, so you might ask what we do with the remaining 5 hours. We spend that time fine-tuning and checking things like the head, the cartridge, and the gap difference. We make sure to spend a considerable amount of time with this fine-tuning process. That is why our factories remain in Japan only. If it was assembly only, we could have gone overseas, however, our production requires the kind of engineering expertise that can only be found in Japan.


Could you give us some insight into how your printers are superior to conventional, eco-solvent printers, both in terms of their environmental friendliness and their performance?

Solvent inks, in general, are not environmentally friendly, in fact, they contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and when they dry out, a chemical vapor is emitted. Solvent ink has been the preferred choice, especially when printing large signs and displays. and I think that is because it has a very strong resistance against sunlight. If you have an outdoor advertisement and it only lasts a week or two, quite frankly that isn’t good enough. That brings in the preference towards solvent ink, however, ink with the same performance now exists in an eco-friendly form.

Another new type of ink that we are focusing on is UV ink; it dries up and stabilizes immediately after printing using UV light, so it is considered eco-friendly. However, it doesn’t have a strong resistance against sunlight so we have yet to utilize it for printing signage. There is also water-based ink that is very eco-friendly, but there is a limited amount of media that it can be printed on. Normal paper is fine, but magazine paper that has a sheen does not absorb the ink therefore it is not printable on this kind of media. Each ink has its own characteristics. We have many partners with ink manufacturers such as Sakata Inks and DIC Corporation. This isn’t limited to just Japanese companies, and we have partnerships with overseas ink manufacturers. Once we receive new types of ink we take that chemical and make changes to our printers and the printhead waveform so that the head can effectively spread out the ink. The plan for the next 2-3 years is to transition to mostly eco-friendly inks.

Can you tell us a little more about the importance of international collaboration for your business? Are you currently looking for opportunities to partner with overseas companies?

We are always looking and open to working with new partners. Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail about some of the partnerships we have with new businesses, but we do have a partnership with an American company in Florida called STS, and we produce OEM products for them. STS manufactures direct-to-film (DTF) printers, which used to be known as DTG or direct-to-garments. We also have partners in Europe that have OEM agreements with us, and additionally in Europe, we have an agent that conducts sales on our behalf.


The advent of 3D printing has been generating a lot of excitement in the industry as it has a high growth potential and could be a powerful tool in the hands of monozukuri manufacturers that look to realize a more high-mix-low-volume production model. Can you tell us a little more about what role your 3D printers will play in your business?

As of today, we consider 3D printing as a big boom, but business-wise it is yet to be that lucrative. In fact, we act as an agent for an American large-scale 3D printing company. Unfortunately, right now we don’t see much utilization of 3D printing in Japanese manufacturing sites, and I think there is little incorporation because the quality and precision are not quite there yet. It isn’t high enough to cater to the demands of Japanese monozukuri. The use of 3D printers is now confined to making models or mockups, and as a 3D printer dealer we have incorporated their use, but that use is limited to the production of parts that require less sophistication. In terms of 3D printers, our focus is not on large-scale and is more directed to mid-to-small-scale printers.

Our 3D printer series is called the ML and MF Series and a unit will set you back about JPY 1-2 million. It utilizes solidifying technology to cure the ink with light. Our small-scale printers range in price from about JPY 500,000 to JPY 1 million. These units use filament technology which melts the resin and compiles it up. This upcoming spring we are looking forward to launching a new type of low-scale model that utilizes cutting-edge technology.


Could you tell us more about your UV lamp dimming technology? What are some of the key use applications that this technology allows your customers to unlock?

This UV LED lamp dimming technology allows the UV lamps on the printer head side to be controlled. By changing the number of lamps that are lit you can adjust the curing time for the resin. Since we can adjust the curing time, we can spread out the resin more, or alternatively, cure it faster. These applications have allowed our printers to be used to print braille. In the US there is a regulation that you have to have braille on every hotel door. By changing the curing time of this ink we are able to extrude the substrate and make it stand out. What we are trying to do now is to add additional value to our products by incorporating our software package VerteLith, which is aiding in the workflow of our customers.

By using VerteLith and doing image processing through our UV printer we are able to create braille-dotted letters. Additionally, our VerteLith software is used in car wrappings which is quite popular in the US. To do a car wrap you first print out on polycarbonate using eco-friendly solvents and then laminate to cover up the print. Conventionally you need to wait for this eco-solvent to dry before laminating because if you rush it gas will be emitted during the drying process and there will be small bubbles and gaps across the surface of the wrap. Using our UV printer and software we are able to minimize the time that is required for drying. Essentially we are able to expedite the process of car wrapping.  

Can you tell us more about the current direction of your international strategy?

Our emphasis right now is particularly focused on North America, Europe, and Australia. At each location, we have a direct Mutoh representative, those being Mutoh America, Mutoh Europe, and Mutoh Australia. The reason we are focused on developed nations is that we not only provide printers, we also provide ink. If we sell in Asia to countries like China they tend to only purchase the printer and not the ink. They want to cut costs and therefore use cheaper inferior ink. That business style is not desirable for us.


Imagine that we come back in 4 years' time and have this interview all over again. What goals and dreams do you hope to achieve in the next 4 years?

Firstly, I can’t assure you that I will still be the president in 4 years' time. Currently, Mutoh is the number 6 printer manufacturer in the world, and Hewlett Packard, the US manufacturer is number 1. We are aware of our position in the market, and obviously, we cannot compete with those big players in every aspect, so our business strategy is to develop unique and niche technologies that can solidify our position among our loyal customers. By integrating cutting-edge technology and utilizing our expertise in fine-tuning we truly believe that we can create new products that meet the needs of our clients.