A company that celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023, Hanken Works manufactures specialized enclosures such as fuel tanks, hydraulic tanks and mufflers for construction, agricultural and industrial machinery. Hanken’s enclosures, referred to in Japanese as hakomono, are crafted with a dedication to monozukuri – the pursuit of perfection at the heart of Japanese manufacturing. We spoke to president Nobuo Matsuda to find out more about the company and its products.
What does monozukuri represent for you and your firm? What do you believe are the competitive advantages of Japan’s industry that allows it to stay competitive in the global market?
There are two major principles when describing monozukuri. I believe that it is common for Japanese companies to adjust to the production techniques and production flow of the industry. This concept is known in Japanese as suriyabasi. Structurally, there is a role distribution required for each division within the company which gives it an edge over its international competitors. Each division within the company is responsible for specific jobs, and each manager and their department are responsible for one particular focus. This creates accumulative knowledge and know-how, which exceeds the expectations of our customers. This precise role distribution which we have employed for many years gives us good quality, cost and delivery (QCD) results. Secondly, when looking at Europe and America, places which I myself have worked, preference is given to the designer, and it is the designer who is the departure point. He is the one who triggers the essence of monozukuri. In Japan, it is different. We have horizontal co-operative modes, and this collaboration provides a higher degree of transparency as well as allowing for feedback from the production site. Each manager and division can see what is happening at the production level. This allows for instant feedback which results in the easy implementation of minor changes to the production. Changes can be made instantly. This reduces time-loss. Therefore, the excellence of Japanese monozukuri is its focus on collaboration and transparency, and not giving preference to one particular job.
Could you please describe not only the challenges, but the possible opportunities presented to your firm by Japan’s aging demographic?
It is true that Japan is facing demographic challenges as a result of its aging population. Japan is a country that is often highlighted when discussing these issues, however, these demographic challenges are not unique to Japan, and are faced by many other countries. Being an SME company, by definition it is very hard to employ people. The manufacturing industry here in Japan is not a popular place for young people who have just graduated from university. It can be difficult to attract them to the company. As a result, sustainable manpower can be a challenge. One solution would be foreign manpower from abroad. Some companies in Japan have applied this solution, however we are not talking about ordinary workers. We are talking about qualified people who have specialized knowledge such as graduates from special engineering programs with relevant experience. However, this does not guarantee a solution to the problem. There is also a communication problem which may prevent specialized workers functioning to their highest level. The language barrier can be an issue, and there may be differences in the way work is done here in Japan to the way that they learned at their alma mater. Another issue is in relation to senpai or those in senior management positions. Their approach to transferring the skills and knowledge to new graduates is an on-the-job-training (OJT) approach. This can be difficult to implement now. To address these issues, we have created an electronic database to structuralize everything that has been accumulated over many years in the minds of our senpais. Using a database provides us with an easily accessible source of information, which also helps us to avoid the loss of data and technical knowledge. Another solution is integration into more sophisticated machinery and equipment. In the past we relied on work done by hand and by the eye. Nowadays, more sophisticated technology such as 3D data simulates results and expectations for processes. This is a big improvement. It simplifies things in many ways and gives greater transparency to the way work is done. For example, we have precise sensors that are installed on the machinery which can detect when things go wrong or operate differently to the way it was prescribed in the design. We can now capture and analyze any problems that occur. This improvement in technology and employment of more sophisticated machinery compensates for the lack of manpower in this aging society.
Let’s focus on the database and why it is important. It increases the efficiency of the new graduates. If you know how things are prescribed in a structuralized database, then you understand how the work should be done. This of course increases the efficiency of new employees in the company. This also increases the engagement ratio of new employees from day one. Therefore, our database is key.
I would like to discuss two main challenges or control points in hydraulic tank manufacturing. The first challenge being controlling the density to prevent leaks, and the second challenge being cleanliness to prevent contamination. Can you explain how you overcome these challenges in your manufacturing process?
Firstly, the density of the hydraulic tanks is extremely important. We need to carry out leak tests to ensure that the tanks apply to all the standards. We are proud to say that our leak ratio is the best in the industry. We are currently running a ratio of plus-minus 1% of leaks happening at the production site. Some other companies in our industry have much higher ratios of defects in their products. We run leak tests and inspections at the production site. If we do find leaks, we repair them using welding techniques. This ensures that we have the best possible product and guarantees that our customers remain satisfied. Advanced welding techniques are key to prevent leakages. In the past, the welding was done in several parts which were then combined together. This resulted in more leakages. Today, welding is more precise.
This is the connector. These are the areas of the tank where the welding is applied. In the areas where one weld stops and another begins, there may be leakage. We weld all these areas together with a single weld. Leaks occur when there are many separate welds, however, by applying this our continuous welding method, there is less chance of leakage as there are not many connection sites. We introduced this circulated single line of welding. This has resulted in a decrease in leakage. Our leakages are very low, but if a leakage does occur, the person who did the welding can provide instant feedback on why it occurred.
Is the welding still a manual process or is it automated?
Ninety four percent of the welding is automated, but the remaining percent is done manually. The process of leak tests involves submerging the welded parts into a pool. The air will pump out of the areas where the welding is not completed. The water is clean and transparent which makes it easy to see the bubbling. It is crucial to ensure that the water is transparent, as you would not see where the leaks occur in tests if the water was not transparent. These leak tests are conducted by specialized inspectors, as ordinary workers may not respond accurately when they see the bubbling happen.
Let us now discuss the prevention of contamination in our tanks. In regards to the structure of the tank itself, we have seen the exterior view of the tank. However, within the tank, there are several parts and many different structures. It is difficult to fully automate the production of all variations of the tank structures. Therefore, we understood that it would be impossible to run a fully automatized sanitation process for cleaning the interior of the tank. We employ people who are responsible for manually cleaning the interior of the tanks using special cleaning devices. This is necessary to ensure that we avoid contamination in our tanks. Some areas within the tank are very difficult to clean.
Can you explain to us the importance that collaboration plays for your firm? Are you actively pursuing international collaboration opportunities?
Our company does not have a large number of examples where we have collaborated with other companies. That being said, the assignments that we receive from our customers in the construction industry require us to cooperate and collaborate with the client at the starting point. We are very open-minded and welcoming to companies that come to us with assignments. The pre-design stage is very important. Our sales and marketing department and our design team work closely with our customers, regularly holding meetings. This is key to creating a better finalized design.
Looking to the future, can you please share with us if there are any particular markets or regions that you consider key as part of your international development? What is your strategy to tackle those markets?
First of all, we do have a plant outside of Japan, which is in Indonesia. We plan to further expand this plant. Currently, the Indonesian plant is producing a mid-sized range of fuel tanks. The next stage will be to increase this to a larger-sized range of fuel tanks with more capacity and density. There is still room to grow in the market with these large fuel tanks, and it is possible to produce these larger fuel tanks with a cheaper labor force. That is a major reason why we are planning to increase the production ratio at our Indonesian plant.
As an international strategy are you looking to strengthen your presence in Indonesia only, or are you also looking to increase your exports to other countries in order to find new customers in your industry?
Indonesia is the country that procures products globally. From Indonesia our products go to many countries around the globe. However, Indonesia’s domestic market also has a lot of potential. Therefore, we are considering not only expanding our plant there, but also increasing our domestic sales in Indonesia. The capital of Indonesia is being moved, so there will be a large market there in the future.
Mr. Matsuda, thank you very much for this interview. I do have one final question for you. This year, your company is celebrating its 99th year anniversary. Imagine we come back for your company’s 105th year anniversary, and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company and what goals would you have accomplished by then?
We are a specialized automated enclosures manufacturing company producing things such as fuel tanks, hydraulic tanks and others. We are an established name in this industry. Our presence in this market is very stable. We would like to maintain this position and sustain our brand name many years from now. Currently we are in the markets of construction, agricultural machines and industrial machines such as fuel tanks and hydraulic tanks. We would like to expand beyond these areas in the future. In regards to materials, our products are mainly made from iron. We are considering the use of stainless steel and aluminum as an alternative in the future. Another development that we are considering for the future regards the size of the tanks. We currently produce mid-sized, large-sized and extra-large-sized tanks for construction machinery. However, there is also potential for the development of small-sized tanks and that is something we are considering. These are our targets for the years to come. In the meantime, we would like to produce all the Hakomono (enclosures) all over the world. Well, it is our big aim and big challenge, Hakomono to the world!