While many regional competitors replicate Japan’s manufacturing process with lower quality standards, YSK is maintaining its status as a leader in shaft manufacturing, providing high-quality products to the world. A small firm established over 50 years ago, YSK is still mixing it with the biggest players in the linear motion technologies sector. Its secret? Ease of use. Achieving comfort for those tasked with assembling YSK shafts is vital. As company president Naoto Ishikawa explains, this is done by “exploiting the exact tolerance of the material and applying that consistently to all shafts”.
Over the past two decades we have seen the rise of Asian manufacturers who have been able to replicate certain processes and products of Japanese monozukuri, but at a cheaper cost. How have Japanese firms remained competitive even in the face of such tough price competition?
It is true that many of our products have been copied in China, Taiwan and Korea, whose producers have replicated our manufacturing and assembly processes. However, I believe that the world will see that Japanese products maintain their performance for much longer, even for 10, 20 or 30 years. Japanese parts and components have a much longer lifespan compared to those produced in other countries. For example, our products maintain their performance for 10 to 20 years.
When it comes to extending parts’ lifespan, materials are essential. Take, for instance, our drive shafts. The material is the same as the one used for the equivalent product made in China or Korea, but the difference is in the impurities in the material. Impurities cause metal fatigue, which results in parts and components that are likely to break, so the fewer the impurities the longer the lifespan will be.
We have experience in high-frequency quenching and grinding to reduce impurities. Furthermore, we do not just limit our grinding process to the level that the material can tolerate. Instead, we match its tolerance level exactly so that, like bearing oil, when the components move, their action is very fluid, and they work in harmony as integral parts of the machine. This also contributes to extending the lifespan of the machine itself.
There are some very large companies both in Japan and foreign markets such as Asia and Europe operating in the linear motion technologies sector. What are the competitive advantages of YSK as a small firm when it comes to competing with these corporate giants?
When it comes to sliding shafts, think about the shape. It is very simple, and there are no obvious features. It is hard to be competitive when it comes to simple items, and you will often find similar prices for competing products. However, our intention is not to compete on price; an idea probably shared by many other Japanese manufacturers.
Japanese manufacturers do not compete with Chinese products, which are very cheap in some cases. What we can offer is ease of use. For example, suppose you are engaged in assembly. When assembling our shafts, you will find them easy to operate and handle. We embrace the idea of comfort for those who assemble our shafts, which can be easily combined with bushes and other peripheral parts. We achieve this comfortable handling by exploiting the exact tolerance of the material and applying that consistently to all our shafts.
Japan is the country with the oldest life expectancy in the world, of 85 years, and almost a third of its population is over the age of 65. These demographic trends are leading to a shrinking of the labor force and domestic market. How are these challenges affecting your company and how are you reacting to them?
We cannot avoid the issue of Japan’s aging society. As you mentioned, the domestic market is destined to shrink, so we are in the process of eyeing overseas markets, for example expanding our marketing channels to China and Vietnam.
As for the labor shortage, it is true that it has become more difficult to impart manufacturing skills to the younger generation. Therefore, I am focusing on leveraging the potential of women. I believe that Japan can derive great strength from women. At YSK, we are thinking about how women can contribute to changing the way of thinking and doing things in Japan, where business is male dominated. This is the key.
Take sports; Japanese women’s ability has already reached world class level in golf, for example. Japanese women are very active, so we want to combine women’s abilities with the craftsmanship that we have cultivated over the years.
When I talk about women, this also includes foreign women. Among the advanced economies, Japan has not taken advantage of women’s powers. In fact, Japan is ranked very low when it comes to the percentage of women in managerial positions. This, I believe, is one of the reasons behind economic stagnation in Japan.
Corrosion of the moving parts of linear motion modules is caused by temperature and humidity changes. Your company is researching a new product, YSU-1, which has superior corrosion and high abrasion resistance. Could you tell us more about it?
When a metal is hard, it corrodes, which shortens components’ lifespan. If the metal is not hard, it will not corrode easily, so the difficulty is finding the balance whereby it does not rust easily, but it is still hard enough. By combining our quenching technology with other technologies, we are trying to find that exact configuration. We are currently in the process of conducting research and development to tackle this.
As for the product’s applications, YSU-1 is not designed to be used in clean indoor rooms where temperature and humidity levels are steady, but rather outdoors, in tougher environments. However, even YSU-1 will eventually be affected by corrosion, so we are still in the process of improving it to make it last even longer.
Your company has gone beyond the production of shafts and bushes and creates peripheral equipment as well. Why did you decide to manufacture both linear motion products and the machines used to manufacture them?
Quenching technology responds to our specific needs. For example, our GR shaft is like a Japanese sword in that it is very hard, does not break, but is also somewhat flexible. The rigidity comes from heating and cooling it, hitting it on a stone and cooling and heating it again. This repetition lends it its hardness and rigidity.
We decided to produce our own quenching machine because the quenching process is immediately reflected in the product. When you perform quenching, the product tends to bend. We did not want this effect, so we needed a different kind of quenching machine, such as a high-frequency one. It was not easy to find a product that could meet our requirements, so we decided to make it ourselves.
One of the characteristics of the GR shaft is that it has 1.2 to 1.4 times the rotating strength of conventional shafts, as well as 10 times the abrasion resistance. What applications is the GR shaft suited for compared to other products?
To tell you the truth, we are still striving to identify those applications. Although we have made the GR shaft, we have not yet found a specific application for this product. However, we have achieved ten times the abrasion resistance of traditional shafts and I am sure that this is useful for those who have trouble with abrasion. We have already completed the testing phase, but the fact that we have not found a definitive application yet may in part be because we have not properly demonstrated the product’s capabilities, including its rotating strength, yet.
You have factories in both Japan and Thailand. How do you maintain high levels of quality in production across these locations?
This is explained by the concept of monozukuri, which we are very proud of. We tell our workers, whether in Japan or Thailand, to be proud of implementing monozukuri, which is the bedrock of the manufacturing process, and to consider the products as if they were their children. They should think about how our products will be judged by our customers, and that we need to develop them so that they will be praised by users. I think the secret to maintaining high quality lies in the workers’ spirit rather than their skills.
Are there any regions or markets that you consider key to your international business, and what is your strategy overseas?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not made any significant moves when it comes to our international strategy. While the Chinese market is large, users there tend to be satisfied with lower standards when it comes to shafts and that is not really what we are targeting.
We want to make high quality shafts at a reasonable price, but in the Chinese market the demand is for inexpensive products, and there is not much consideration for their longevity. We cannot make these kinds of shafts in Japan but can instead rely on our manufacturing facility in Thailand. In our Thai factory, we can make shafts that are cheaper and ready for use, therefore addressing the needs of Chinese customers.
In terms of our strategy, we have a Chinese employee who will soon leave for China to set up a joint venture business with a Chinese firm. This company started as a trader, but it wants to start producing parts and components. It is looking to learn the skills involved in the manufacturing of slide shafts from us, with a view to selling them directly to trading firms in China. Therefore, our current goal is to produce shafts in Thailand and sell them in China.
Your immediate target is China, but looking beyond, are you interested in other markets in the long term?
The answer is yes, but this might just be a selfish dream of mine. I wish to have a factory in Europe, which has been a dream of mine since I was a student. When it comes to automobiles or machines such as printing machines, Germany is the home of world-leading companies. Therefore, I would like these industry leaders to use our sliding shafts. This is my long-term dream and, profits aside, I would like to make it come true.
Imagine we come back to interview you again on the last day of your presidency. What dreams or goals would you like to have achieved by then?
There are several things that I would like to do. One of them is to own a building separate from our factory where our headquarters can be located. I would like to own a building that our employees can be proud of, one that they look at and think, “that building is cool, I would like to work there”.
Another dream is building a factory in Germany, as I mentioned, and creating many different companies. Our company manufactures sliding shafts, but I would like to create corporations in different fields as well. For example, one of our employees is a young woman in Tokyo, and she wants to create and sell hand cream: because she has experience of working in a factory, the hand cream would be targeted at factory workers, whose hands often suffer the effects of substances such as grease. This would make the hand cream unique and give it a competitive edge.