Since its foundation, the WAKO Group has been engaged in special processing and manufacturing both metal and plastic products such as SUS (stainless steel) products, acrylic products and so on.
Can you share with us your take on monozukuri that sets you apart from your regional manufacturing competitors?
It is actually not a misperception that Japanese technology and quality are becoming inferior to global competitors. However, what makes Japanese monozukuri unique compared to the rest of the world is the fundamental philosophy behind it. Japanese monozukuri pursue perfection from the beginning to the end, including after service. Japanese manufacturers perceive the needs of customers without being told. Companies with advanced processing technologies are very good at making machines and materials, so Japan has an established infrastructure to support its monozukuri. Great importance is also placed on the skill sets of engineers. In the past, Europeans brought their guns to Japan and later, it was domestically produced and became the world's largest holder with 500,000 guns in the late 16th century. This is due to the high technical skills of Japanese craftsmen.
How does Wako embody the spirit of monozukuri?
Wako places great importance on engineering skills. We will have a more automated process for manufacturing in the future but, we realize that AI cannot do everything. Some areas in manufacturing will still need to be done by humans. In order for engineers to support what the machinery and AI do, we are improving engineering skills through training so we can stay ahead of our competitors. We also place a high value on aesthetics along with performance. Although it is important to enhance scientific value through new features, we also want to fulfill people's aesthetic demands, and the Japanese aesthetic sense is quite competitive.
A major problem for SMEs in Japan is preserving the expertise of their craftsmen. Automation is a solution, but not all tasks can be automated. Some tasks still require human eyes, hands, and expertise. What opportunities and challenges do you see arise from Japan's shrinking population and aging skilled workers?
We are now seeing very few young people pursuing engineering in manufacturing or construction. I visited a Hermes exhibition in Kyoto the other day, and I found out that their craftsmen incorporated technology into their process. We try to raise the skill level of our craftsmen and engineers, especially the young talents. This takes time. We can continue our business if we secure craftsmen and engineers. About half of the SMEs in Japan do not have successors and are unable to procure enough engineers. There are increased orders for suppliers who have qualified engineers and advanced manufacturing capabilities.
Can you tell us more about the technological side of your business, and what specific techniques or technologies you would like to showcase to our international readers?
A good example is our acrylic vacuum molding technology use for bathtubs. If you use the same thickness of the material on our acrylic vacuum molding technology, it would be 1.5 or 1.6 times thicker. This technology reduces cost because it requires thinner materials, but produces the same thickness, strength and quality. In addition to our vacuum molding technology, we also have other plastic and metal molding technologies. Other companies usually just specialize with either metal or plastic molding only.
Why do you believe there are not many companies like yours that process both plastic and metal?
It is easier to have all the equipment for only metal processing or plastics rather than having both. Moreover, it is more efficient to train human resources in one specialized field. We applied our accumulated technologies and know-how for metal processing to produce the vacuum molding technology. Wako was originally an industrial equipment manufacturer. Now we are the company produces everything from nuclear power plant equipment to bath tubs. We used to produce equipment that manufactures stainless plates for kitchen tops and supply these machines to almost all kitchen manufacturer. We developed plastic molding technology when we started using our technologies on house equipment.
In our research, we saw that you are giving attention to the energy field for battery module enclosure. What is your strategy to enter the energy market and what solutions, products, or technologies are you developing for this market?
We are expecting on the future of batteries as an energy supply system. This is secondary battery. Even though the biggest market for this particular type of battery is currently occupied by the lithium-ion battery, we utilize our technologies and contribute on Monozukuri of more promising product sodium and sulfur battery, which is specialized in long duration storage market, by NGK Insulators Ltd. as their cooperative factory.
Have you ever considered collaborating with foreign companies for product development or technology development?
We have not collaborated with foreign companies in the energy sector, but we have done an overseas collaboration with our housing equipment products.
We cannot disclose the company that we are collaborating with at the moment, but we are currently developing a module system with them. Europe is also experiencing a labor shortage and an aging society, so there is a need for a module bath system. This is a global trend in the architectural sector. The advantage of module bath systems is that there is no leakage. Baths constructed in Europe and Asia often have a lot of water leakage.
Have you introduced your module bath system in Europe already?
We just started the discussion for its development, so we have not introduced any systems in any market yet. We are currently on a project tailoring our products to the needs of hotels and condominiums. In Asia, especially in Singapore and Thailand, we have already done a similar project and launched the products in some places. Currently, major Japanese suppliers are not eager to expand their unit bath business in overseas market, so this is an opportunity for us.
You have subsidiaries and offices in Asia like in Thailand and the Philippines. Are you interested in taking a similar approach in Europe and planning to establish local offices or local sites?
In the Philippines, we have a local company that mainly focuses on factory operations. Both Thailand and the Philippines are centrally located geographically in Asia and have no tariffs in the ASEAN market. We are focusing on the Philippines as the core supplier for the ASEAN countries. Even though labor is not cheap, there is no local industry, so we do not expect salaries to increase dramatically in the near future. Vietnam on the other hand used to have cheaper labor costs but has risen a lot, so it is difficult to have a stable cost structure. The Philippines are mainly producing plastic products. The average temperature is about 25° C which is suitable for production of plastic products. We would like to use it as a hub for our supply chain in Asia. We have our sales office in Thailand that we can also use to expand our sales throughout Asia. We would like to establish a local company there too.
This year is your 62nd year anniversary. If we come back in 3 years and have this interview all over again, what dreams do you have for this company and what goals would you like to accomplish by then?
Our company is focused on industrial and housing equipment, and both are looking at different futures. It is our goal to expand our housing equipment and our stainless bathtub in the European market. Because they are pursuing sustainability, we are seeing a transition in bathtub materials in the European market. They are now reconsidering stainless and enamel bathtubs that are not easily stained and help with water conservation. It does not need a lot of detergent to clean these materials. In Japan, we would like to expand the wooden bathtub. In 1950, we had 90% of the forest industry available to use. It is now down to 30%. If the forests are not protected, we can permanently damage them. We can protect the environment if we recycle wooden materials such as wooden bathtubs.