With the growing demand for durable printed circuit boards (PCBs) in sectors such as automotive, FujiPrix Group is focused on improving and enhancing existing technologies to serve global clients.
The Japanese manufacturing sector is living in interesting times. In light of the significant supply chain disruption caused by the new coronavirus outbreak over the past three years and the ongoing deterioration in US-China relations, business groups are looking to diversify their supplier base and build more reliable networks. Japanese companies, known for their reliability and advanced technology, find themselves in an interesting position, especially with the yen at historic lows against the US dollar. Do you agree with this premise? What do you see as the main advantages for Japanese suppliers in the current macro environment?
Discussing the general market situation, there are obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, the Japanese manufacturing sector seems to be experiencing a resurgence. There has been a noticeable increase in domestic manufacturing. For example, in the semiconductor industry, foreign companies such as TSMC are opening shops in Japan.
On the other hand, however, the situation is more subtle. I visited China earlier this month and from what I observed, the country is actively adapting to global change. They are not just passive bystanders. They are strategically relocating their manufacturing base to South East Asian countries, with Thailand being an example. This is seen as a measure to avoid US-China trade friction. Furthermore, it is important to note that Japanese companies remain heavily influenced by the economic situation in China. At present, in assessing the market outlook, the challenges appear to outweigh the benefits.
One in three people in Japan is expected to be aged 60 or over in the next 15 years, which will lead to labour shortages and a shrinking domestic market, triggering many Japanese companies to expand their overseas operations. What are some of the challenges this demographic shift is causing? And how are you responding to those challenges?
Describing the current situation in Japan, there has been a clear resurgence in the manufacturing sector. Many companies are capitalising on this trend and many are considering relocating their manufacturing bases back to Japan. However, the major obstacle they face is a serious shortage of human resources. This problem is particularly acute for companies such as the Fujiprix Group. For example, our company has a factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. Tokyo is the centre of a large city, making it difficult to set up a factory there, while the suburban areas, while ideal for infrastructure development, suffer from a labour shortage. This poses a considerable challenge, given that there is sufficient demand in Tokyo but not enough labour to meet it.
Furthermore, recruitment in the manufacturing sector has stagnated since the bursting of the bubble. Most employees currently involved in the industry are in their 50s and 60s. There is an urgent need to attract young talent, especially in their 20s. Essentially, the sustainability and competitiveness of companies in this sector depends on their ability to recruit and retain the younger generation.
The semiconductor and electronics sector is currently trending downwards, affected by rising interest rates, falling demand and high inventory levels. The long-term outlook for the sector is encouraging, but analysts expect a rebound to occur by Q2 2024 at the latest. When do you expect this rebound to occur?
Operating in the B2B sector, we often rely on insights and forecasts shared by our clients. Initially, there was optimism that the economic recovery would begin by the end of this year. However, general sentiment is now leaning towards a possible recovery in 2024, possibly after April. Nevertheless, the situation in China remains a concern. Given the current situation, it is unclear whether China will be stable by then.
As a company that has been present in China for more than 20 years, what role do you see China playing in the PCB sector? What role does the Chinese market play for your company?
Although we have mentioned the trend of Chinese companies relocating their manufacturing facilities to South East Asia, the printed circuit board (PCB) sector presents a unique situation. China continues to hold a dominant position in the PCB industry, thanks not only to the large number of PCB plants, but also to the large number of companies that form an important link in the PCB supply chain. These include companies involved in the manufacture of devices that facilitate PCB production. We are involved in sourcing and supplying these companies, underpinning a strong and prosperous network in China in this area.
However, the situation could evolve over the next two decades, with South East Asia emerging as an important player in the PCB sector. In fact, we are receiving more enquiries from customers wishing to procure PCBs from South East Asia than from China. Recognising this surge in demand, we are exploring opportunities to expand our footprint in regions such as Vietnam and Thailand at subsidiary level.
Is there a timeline for such activities? When do you plan to establish offices in Vietnam and Thailand?
Currently, we do not have permanent offices in Vietnam or Thailand. Instead, our team members travel to Vietnam from China every month to understand and assess the situation. Our observation is that, except perhaps for a few large companies, the Vietnamese market remains uncharted territory - a vast 'blue ocean' opportunity. We face the challenge of identifying reliable suppliers and establishing a strong foothold, but these expedition trips represent our commitment to establishing roots in the region.
Given the growing demand for durable PCBs in sectors such as automotive, where electronics are exposed to harsh conditions, what innovations has your company introduced to produce PCBs that can withstand extreme environments?
When discussing our role in the PCB business, it is worth noting that we do not have a significant footprint in the domestic automotive sector. In the automotive sector, our role is more focused on our trading function in China, particularly in materials sourcing, rather than our direct involvement in domestic automotive PCBs.
Shifting the focus to high-end and cutting-edge technology on the PCB, it is interesting to observe that outside the automotive industry the desire for the latest technology has somewhat slowed down. The focus is more on improving and enhancing existing technology. Client requirements tend to focus on features such as improved heat dissipation and cooling. Established technologies, such as those dealing with high frequencies, dominate the market, overshadowing newer, more advanced technologies.
To be truly successful in the Japanese PCB sector, especially as a Small and Medium Enterprise (SME), requires a clear focus. The key lies not in chasing the latest technology, but in mastering and enhancing standard PCB technology. In my experience, I have met very few SMEs that have succeeded by focusing primarily on cutting-edge solutions. Often, the reality turns out to be the opposite.
Currently, the Fujiprix Group comprises five companies, including Apollo Giken, Fuji Printing Industrial, Faith, Pollux Techno and Fuji Printing Industrial (H.K), covering every stage of the printed circuit board supply chain from upstream to downstream. How does this group structure benefit your company?
Our decisive strength lies in our comprehensive integration across the different stages of the PCB process. It is rare in the industry for a company to be able to handle design, procurement and development in an integrated manner. This integrated approach differentiates us significantly. This aspect further underlines our distinct market position.
Our organisational structure also allows us to exploit synergies between the different entities within the group. In a sense, we are a 'super SME'. Our reach of over 1,000 customers is commendable for an SME of our size. We are still refining the way we use the network, but we make it easy for clients associated with Apollo to connect, for example, if they require the services in which our subsidiary Faith specialises. This adaptability ensures that we can meet the diverse needs of our clients, especially under a high-mix, low-volume business model.
Would you like to attract more foreign customers?
Of our huge client base of around 1,000 companies, nearly 900 are Japanese companies. We can share that our most influential clients are international semiconductor companies.
It is not our top priority, but we aim to diversify our customer base. Ideally, we would like foreign companies to account for a quarter of our customers. However, expanding internationally presents challenges in navigating the high-mix, low-volume market. Taking our products abroad often increases our costs, making our products more expensive and potentially less competitive.
How do you ensure that the level of quality you offer your customers in Asian countries is the same as in Japan?
Our approach to quality assurance and control is consistent both in Japan and in China. We are strategically located in close proximity to our suppliers, including factories in Japan. This not only ensures that the quality specifications set by suppliers are consistently met, but also facilitates a collaborative environment for continuous improvement and adjustment to evolving standards.
In terms of breadth of service, we pride ourselves on being able to offer a comprehensive range of printed circuit board services, from manufacture to application.
Are you currently looking to add more companies to your group?
In our technology area, we have established competence in both development and design. It is certainly beneficial to find partners who are skilled in integrating software into hardware, i.e. in providing firmware. Such partnerships hold the potential for mutual growth.
In Japan, the general trend is that design tasks are mainly executed in-house by large companies. However, when these companies have too many projects, they often outsource them to smaller companies, as is the case with outsourcing certain contracts. Contrary to some belief, the market for such services is not huge here. The demands on manufacturing outweigh the demands on design. In fact, I see greater growth potential in emphasising 'manufacturing' - the art of making and crafting - as opposed to pure design development.
What ambitions do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
In 2026, the Fujiprix Group will celebrate its 10th anniversary. On that occasion, we have set ourselves the lofty target of achieving a turnover of 10 billion yen. Reflecting our group structure, we have integrated companies such as Apollo, Faith and Pollux Techno through mergers and acquisitions. Although it may seem less visible to some, my main objective is to deepen the Group's sense of unity. It is essential that we move forward with a common vision of collective growth and development.
Recently, I have observed an alarming trend among Japanese SMEs. It is a tendency towards a conservative mindset, with the sole aim of avoiding bankruptcy. In stark contrast, I envisage the Fujiprix Group being a lighthouse for SMEs, showing that growth is not only possible, but achievable. Given Japan's ageing population, it is clear that the emphasis on a growth mindset is waning. I am passionate about reviving this outlook, not only within organisations but across the business environment. Encouraging our employees to adopt this growth perspective is paramount to our future success!