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Harmonic Drive: born in the US, raised in Japan

Interview - September 16, 2016

From laboratories and factories to power generation and space exploration, HDSI has taken the ingenious drive mechanism invented in the US in the 1950s by C.W. Musser and developed it in Japan for a huge range of applications. President & Representative Director Akira Nagai explains the evolution of its hi-spec Harmonic Drive® and of HDSI into a unique, global, total motion technology company.



As president of a precision manufacturing company, do you believe Japan is best positioned to lead the fourth industrial revolution, which is not only about creating cutting-edge technology but also finding solutions to improve people’s lives across the globe?

I personally have a mixed feeling about this; Japan is leading the technology in the world. We used to lead technology and automotives, like Sony and Toshiba. Nowadays, I think the software took over the lead. Perhaps it is part of the Japanese culture for people to think of hardware first. To me, the very smart and bright guys, especially from Silicon Valley, MIT or Carnegie Mellon in the robotics industry, think of software first. A good example is the Japanese cellphone: NTT had a very nice, advanced cellphone. Perfect device. Then after their product launch, they started thinking, "How can we use this? Maybe we can use it for train [tickets] as Pasmo, or for vending machines to buy a Coca Cola."

I may be wrong, but Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple computer, for example he was working in front of his computer, listening to music, changing the CDs. Then he says, "Oh, this is troublesome. Maybe we can put music into the computer." Then, he invented iTunes and the iPod. What about hardware? He probably said, "Oh, let the Taiwanese make it." The approach is totally different. The Japanese people will never start anything until he is fully convinced to have a perfect mechanical product, the hardware.

Take Tesla, for example. Japan is very much behind as far as the electric vehicle (EV) goes, because Japanese companies have a fixed mindset. Until they are able to design, complete and perfect mechanisms, they would not launch the product; but Tesla is totally different, they can fix the car through the smartphone.

I personally do not think Japan is leading the world's technology anymore. I totally disagree. This is why our company decided to open up an office in Silicon Valley.


You still have those new geniuses in Japan like Taizo Son, for example, building an empire around Soft Bank. We've seen hundreds of companies who had an interesting story to share, like Takara Bio in gene therapy. Of course, they are working with labs in America, but it is happening because of Japanese companies and Japanese leaders.

Like I have said, I do not cover the entire industry. As far as I have been exposed, my impression is that we are only good at operations when we are given the task or the problem. One time, I had the chance to speak in front of the Hibiya High School students. It is one of the highest, top-ranked high schools in Japan, where most of the students go to Tokyo University. I told them that 30 years ago, I was like them, a high school student. One thing I regret the most is that I tried my best to mark 100 score. They give you a test paper, and 100 is the full mark. The students looked at me and they were a little bit surprised, because they were taught and they are told to study hard to mark 100. However, in an actual business, what the world or the industry expect is to mark above 100. I have seen so many people, not all of them, but the smartest people who can write and mark 200 on the blank sheet of paper. Our people who are at the best, mark 100 but no more than that.

It is about thinking outside the box. This is why our people may be biologically intelligent, but we are not trained to make use of it because of the education. You see, the Minister of Culture used to be a professional wrestler, and he has a very competitive mindset.


Your company has existed for over 45 years and grown into a niche, precise, manufacturing company. You now target to become a total motion control, increasing your sales to 35 billion. We are talking about a 25% increase, up to 2018. Could you tell us more about those major milestones and how this company has become a leading niche manufacturer?

Before I talk about the future, I have to explain about the product itself and also the history. Our product is just a piece of gears. That's it. Most of the gears are meant to either increase, reduce or change the speed, just like the transmission of a car. For example, if you want to achieve 1:50 gear ratio, it has to have around 10 teeth, and you need to have 500 teeth, otherwise you can not achieve it. Or you may have to have two 10 and one 50 and have a three-gear combination. When you put the power this way, your output will not be on the concentric access, so it is a waste of power.

When it comes to our gears, Harmonic Drive®, they consist of three major parts. One is the center part that is elliptic or oval. This is called the “Wave Generator” because it creates a wave-like motion. The second part is called the “Flex Spline”, which is very light and thin, and made of ordinary steel. As the name suggests, it is a little bit flexible. If you squeeze, it can even be bent. Many people believe that it is pressed out of sheet metalm, but it is actually milled out of a forged block, so it takes a lot of time to create. You can feel it, just like how you feel your skin, and it does not have an even thickness. Imagine how complicated and difficult it is to mill this thickness out of the metal block. The third part is called the “Circular Spline”, which is very rigid, but perfectly round. It is made out of casting. You cannot use this by itself. You have to assemble these three parts and then form a drive gear. Here’s a sample of 1:50 Harmonic Drive®. This is the input where normally the motor is connected, so it goes around very fast. Since it has a 1:50 ratio, you have to rotate the input shaft 50 times in order to get one rotation as an output.

Next is a question: Why can you achieve 1:50 with this combination of gears? The trick is that the “Flex Spline” has 100 teeth, and the “Circular Spline” has 102 teeth. The number of the teeth is different by 2, always 2. There are two teeth left uncovered or untouched at each rotation. It means this portion will be delayed by 2/100th, therefore you get 1:50.

Next question: How can you get the 1:80 reduction? There is 160 for the “Flex Spline” and then 162 for the other. “Circular Spline”. Now you get 1:80.

You can easily imagine that we cannot get 1:5 or 1:3 because it is difficult to design. The teeth will be bigger. Based on this principle, the available range of reduction rate is 1:30 to 1:320. When I mentioned about 1:320, maybe you believe it will have bigger gears, but it would not. Only the number of the gears is different. I can have 1:200 in this same sample of 1:50 dimension, but that will mean the numbers of teeth will be different.

Since we do not know what reduction ratio is desired by our customers in advance, we do not carry any complete product inventories. Our business model is very unique. 99% of the business is custom order. We do not have the finished product in our inventory. Zero!

Most of the orders come from robotics companies such as Fanuc, Yaskawa and ABB. Since they continue to make the same models over a certain period, we always have the same order. Based on their annual forecast, we are able to procure the materials without delay.

There is a unique process at the very end of assembling: we have a test called the “Sensing Test”. Since it is an industrial product, for example, if I had 10 pieces of order, every 10th piece should have the same dimension. It has to be interchangeable. Actually, because of the consequent wear of the cutters, each one may not have perfectly the same tolerance. As I mentioned, in this “Sensing Test” our engineers, almost closing their eyes, feel the difference. If it feels a little too tight or too loose, then they will remeasure the part. Then they would remachine a part and throw away the old one and make a new one until they are satisfied.

The human is really at the center of our production. When I mention this, many people tend to think it is a very aged, experienced person who can do this. But if he passes away, the company is over. The engineers who are assigned to that testing and that final assembly are 35 or 40 years old.

Every year we have fresh high school graduates. It takes about 20 years for an engineer to be qualified to this level. Our business is about craftsmanship and Monozukuri, but it does not entirely depend on the individual skill. The trick is, we have a corporate culture that everybody will not compromise nor tolerate such sub-micron differences.

Also, I want you to know the person who invented Harmonic Drive®. It was invented by a gentleman called C. W. Musser. He was not a doctor, a scholar or anything; he was just an inventor on the street. He has made so many inventions, not only drive gears, but he also invented the catapult for the jet fighter pilot. The reason why I accepted your interview is not only to advertise my company to the world, but also I wanted you to spread the awareness of Mr. Musser.

To me, C. W. Musser is comparable to Edison. This drive principle was invented in the 1950s and is still used today and will continue to be used. You see, Edison's electric bulb, where can you find it today? Now it is a LED, so no longer Edison, but still, the kids in the schools know Edison's face and name. However, nobody knows about Musser, which is not fair.

We have been developing gear technology for many years. I believe we were lucky. We are fortunate that the technology since the late 20th century towards 21st century required very high precision devices. What’s interesting is that this was invented in the 1950s. There were no business then at all; it all started in the 1970s.

Each time when our business started to take a certain hike or pick up, there was a certain innovation in our society or industry. The first one was a change from oil hydraulic to electric. Then, the German’s Kuka invented the robot using electric motors. Then, this technology came to Yaskawa in Japan.

There are so many Japanese robot manufacturers who are reliable and this is why these real reliable robot manufacturers exist only in Japan and Europe. I’m not sure why, but probably because the automotive industries in these two regions were most eager to automate their factories. The US does not have any, but of course China, being a future big robot market, has started to join the circle.

What happened next here was the replacement of vacuum tube by transistors for audio. This means the semiconductor was born and soon the CRT was replaced with flat panels for TVs. Thanks to the trend, except for the economic crisis, like Lehman or the semiconductor crash, our business gradually grew.

Many analysts tend to ask me what innovation is coming next, but this is not our job. We only manufacture gears and we do not know what the people are applying them to. As management, we have to have a certain insight into the future. I used to say, and I keep saying, that it would be space and medical/surgical devices. There is a certain growth in the medical needs, especially in the US and Japan.

Before such a future growth area I want to add one category, the smart phone and tablet, which is a combination of semiconductor and flat panel. The service robots can be included in here.

If you look at this trend in innovation, today, what is most required is not the technology to make the big battleship. It is something to do with micro or nano-device parts. This is why people need small manufacturing devices, which also promises a precise motion control. Therefore, they use our gears.


Your product is an unparalleled device and no one can make it as good as you, that's what I read.

Mr Musser created the idea and the design, and his technology was inherited by many companies in the United States. When we purchased his patent for Asia and Europe, it was owned by United Shoe Machine, USM, and we formed a joint venture with them.

The technology remained in the US even after we acquired this patent, which was eventually acquired by Nabtesco, who is as active in the robotics industry as ourselves. In 2005, we agreed with Nabtesco to establish a joint operation, which is called HDLLC in the US.

As you mentioned, it was invented in the United States, but we materialized it. In fact, you could say it was born in the States, but brought up in Japan.


Your new management plan for 2017 talks about investing heavily abroad, expanding overseas, especially in Asia. Can you tell us more about your localization plans? How do you plan to become a global, total motion technology company?

I believe that the reason why we have been successful executing a trans-national operation is because basically all three locations have only one common product, just like Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has one common formula all over the world. Only one recipe. Likewise we have only one product. For example, the Germans use the same gear profiles, materials, design and very similar manufacturing method. As a result, we will have one consistent quality among three. Of course, there are certain variations according to the customer's requirement, such as the different numbers of flange holes.

This has made it easier for us to deploy and/or expand on a global scale. I am trying to enhance this trans-national operation more and more.

Being the mother factory, we share any new development or new modification among us. We have 35% interest and 51% interest in HDAG and HDLLC respectively.


Could you tell us more about your plans in terms of North America and the US market? How important is the US market for you today?

As I mentioned, there are no robotics manufacturers. The robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), are classified into “Industrial Robots” and “Service Robots”. Service robots are divided further into two groups. One is “Professional Service”. The other one is “Consumer Service”, like Roomba and Pepper.

We are extremely good at “Industrial Robots”; major customers are Fanuc, Yaskawa, and ABB, among others. The reason I have put expectations of future growth in this segment is because of the Co-Bots, (collaborative robots), that are expected to work together with human beings. This segment will grow drastically. According to a Barclay’s report, the market will reach 1.5 trillion yen by 2025.

Atop of above-mentioned industrial nature robots and specialized “Service Robots”, there might be some more opportunities in consumer-oriented robots. For example, Soft Bank’s Pepper® today do not seem intended to hold something heavy, but if its future version is designed to hold something, then our gears can be an integral part of it.


We understand the technology stays, but the devices and solutions that are built around your product keep on changing. It must be very exciting to have only one project and so many opportunities. Can you tell us more about how you stay focused on it?

The way we maintain customer awareness of our product is that we keep announcing new products. Our budget allows approximately 6-9% of sales every year for R&D and we conduct some joint research with universities. However, very few institutes can conduct comprehensive research on a complete Harmonic Drive® gear performance. They are specialized in a certain area. There are so many features and benefits of Harmonic Drive® gears and they must be improved selectively or collectively.

One of our advantages that very much differentiates us from others is hollow construction. The hollow area in the center allows the robot manufacturers to use it for wiring and for piping. The products being lightweight is another feature. If you are designing a certain mechanism, and if weight of gears matters a lot just like launching an orbit on a rocket, you will come to us.


Looking at the external research that you are doing with public-private and private-private partnerships, I know you have been working hand-in-hand with many professors of many universities. Can you tell us more about this?

The only hint I can give you today is that we have opened up an office in Silicon Valley. Maybe in the near future there will be more information available from our partners SRI International.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, our company spends a certain amount of its budget on R&D. When I mention about the R&D budget, most people tend to think of the pharmaceutical industries, with white uniforms and researchers doing experiments. We are totally different, the reason being that in pharmaceutical R&D, you know the name of the disease already, like diabetes or cancer. For us, we do not know the name of the application. We do not know the name of the disease. We keep making our product, co-enzymes for bacteria, and when the name of the disease is known, we have the solution. We do not know what comes next. This tiny Harmonic Drive® gear for example, is a new co-enzyme for unknown disease.

I cannot give you the name, but we are starting a new project with a huge volume. The customers do not want to disclose it yet, so I cannot give you more information at this point.


In terms of devices for the future, beyond robotics we will find environmental or energetic solutions that will use your technology. I know that you have worked 30 years for Mitsui & Co., which is one of the largest trading companies in the country and is very involved in new energy solutions. What do you believe is next in terms of environmental devices?

There is one area, solar power generation. This is a device, where a huge mirror reflects the sun’s rays and heats up water and produces steam. This device is called a Heliostat. This is one of the possible applications. Unfortunately, our gears are not used so much in the new ecological devices yet.

Our gears are quite expensive but when it comes to the ecology, to use our gears is already ecological because they are lightweight and very minimal in terms of the amount of parts. Instead of using many different gears, you can have one. This is why this one is used on NASA's satellites.

For NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, which was launched in 2003, NASA used our gears for the driving axis and also robot arms because our products are lightweight. NASA has been one of our biggest customers.


For how many years have you been collaborating together with NASA?

We have been collaborating with NASA since their first moon rover project. Besides drive axis of the rovers, our gears are being used to steer the solar panel on an orbit. Solar is its vital source of energy.

More recently, in the international space station, there are a few astronauts living and working. To work outside the station is very dangerous. If it loses its grip, it is gone forever. Now, there is a robot called the Robonaut. It is working outside like a spider.

Of course, our gears are used there as well in America's DARPA contest. DARPA had a humanoid robot contest. Most of the participants use our gears, for example Carnegie Mellon.

Google acquired several robot manufacturers a few years ago. Many new ventures are trying to develop those devices and they use our gears. We are used in many advanced applications, but we are very analog and old-fashioned manufacturers.

On top of those conventional applications, one of the advantages of our business is that once our gears are being used, customers keep using us. In the automotive field, Audi and Toyota's Lexus use our gears. Also for oil & gas exploration, our gears are used in the RSS system, whose business has slowed down due to the eased crude oil market. You may also find our gears used in the water-jet for metal cutting.

Sometimes you have clients coming with completely unexpected ideas or requirements, and you have to research for long months to respond to it. It takes months until we come up with solutions to the satisfaction of our customers. However long it takes us in working to find solutions for our clients, this is another important aspect of our R&D.


The G7 took place in Japan earlier this year. If you had the occasion to share a message with the attending leaders, what would you like them to remember about your country?

Like I said at the beginning, I'm not an expert to deliver a message to the world, but if I had to say one thing, it would be the education. I would not entirely deny our education in the past, which is very essential and required as a minimum. We should have a new method, a new education system to foster more creative thinking. As I mentioned, we need kids marking 1001 and beyond.