With the aid of the country’s first and only fully automated roller production line, JRC provides tailored conveyor solutions to a wide swath of industries both in Japan and abroad, having manufactured conveyor belt components such as rollers, pulleys and stands for over 60 years. In this interview Minoru Hamaguchi gives his take on Japanese monozukuri and divulges details on the technology that goes into JRC’s products.
What do you consider to be the strengths or competitive advantages of Japanese industry that allows Japan to continue to compete on the global market? What is your monozukuri?
Japanese manufacturing is defined as "solving customer problems". Today, there is a considerable increase in the number of customers who value not only the product itself, but also the 'added value that the product generates'. The Japanese manufacturing industry has always had high quality and technological capabilities, and we believe that by creating added value, it will very possible to regain a competitive advantage in the global manufacturing industry.
In our company, too, we have adopted the slogan 'Discovery to Development', which is a decisive difference from the traditional manufacturing industry, which simply sells products as products. In our business domain as a manufacturer, we operate based on the discovery of customer issues and providing solutions for these products to function well at the customer's site.
SMEs face the challenge of transferring technology and know-how from their aging workforce to the younger generation. Please elaborate on the impact of Japan's aging and declining population on your business.
The high technical skills of many small and medium-sized enterprises in Japan are also essential for large companies to produce high-quality products, so passing on skills to the younger generation is becoming a challenge for the Japanese manufacturing industry as a whole.
Fortunately, our company has not reached an extremely old age at the moment. Most of our employees are in their late 30s, so we are a relatively young company. We have also been able to automate the production process of our main product, rollers, since the end of the 1980s, much earlier than our competitors, so this is not yet a major concern. However, in order to compete with a global manufacturing industry that is more borderless than ever before, we believe that we need to incorporate the latest technologies such as AI and IoT into all or part of our manufacturing processes and information analysis, so that we can provide a stable supply of even higher quality products to the market at more competitive costs.
Can you give us an overview of the types of solutions you offer your clients? How do you approach the challenges of transporting heavy loads both safely and effectively?
The biggest challenge for heavy conveyors is the sudden failure of conveyor equipment. There are many problems such as increased man-hours due to sudden response, long equipment stoppages, excessive consumable stock, reduced overall equipment efficiency and damage to equipment. Therefore, in order to propose longer-life product specifications, prevent production losses and increase cost-effectiveness, we are carrying out research and development of an IoT solution to mount a remote monitoring system on our main product, the roller, and hope to achieve results in the future.
Can you elaborate on your IoT solutions for the remote monitoring of roller systems?
It has a wireless smart detection function that collects information on the vibration level, temperature, RPM (revolutions per minute) and shell wear of the bearings inside the rollers. This provides a comprehensive picture of how the rollers are performing at all times, significantly improving the stability and safety of conveyor operations. Maintenance personnel can continuously monitor roller performance data from a safe location and can access the necessary information at any time via an easy-to-operate interface. Predictive maintenance, which detects signs of roller failures before they occur and takes action according to the situation, can create a positive ripple effect and prevent problems for the entire facility.
JRC Smart Roller
Are you seeking collaborative partners to work on IoT monitoring systems? Are international cooperation and joint projects with foreign companies an area of interest?
For the IoT monitoring system, we are working with a major Japanese electronics company and an Australian venture company. The Australian company initially sought to collaborate with a Chinese roller manufacturer, but the roller itself was of low quality, resulting in it being unsuitable as a base for sensor embedding, and in the search for a higher quality manufacturer, a connection was made with us. We consider collaboration from a global perspective to be very interesting, both in terms of matching each other's strengths and in terms of markets (target countries and regions).
Are you looking for new partners? What areas are you considering for finding these partners?
We believe that maintenance services for conveyor equipment will be at the heart of our business model in the future, and we will focus more on developing remote monitoring systems that are tailored to the various installation environments and conveying conditions of our customers.
As well as the rollers, we need a system that constantly monitors the pulleys, which are a key component in conveyor equipment. If the pulleys fail, it can cause more problems than just the rollers, such as the immediate shutdown of the equipment.
We have just set up a department within our company that deals with machine learning and predictive analytics through AI and IoT, so we would like to find a partner company specializing in that field, both domestically and overseas.
You provide solutions for a very wide range of heavy industries, such as steel, cement and asphalt, as well as logistics, water treatment and recycling. From where do you foresee the greatest demand for your products and services in the future?
In the domestic market, demand is expected to come from the civil engineering sector, such as tunneling and linear bullet train construction. Expo Osaka will also be held in a few years' time, so these needs are also present, but the Japanese market continues to shrink, making it difficult to identify areas of growth in the future. It is very important for us to be able to find solutions to the various problems faced by our customers in a wide range of sectors, including in overseas markets.
Are there any international markets you are focusing on for the future? What is your strategy for developing your international business?
Our strength is the expertise we have developed in the automation of roller production, and we are working to develop a 'smart factory' using robots. It is a compact design that can be introduced in a space-saving way, and we want to introduce this to overseas markets. Ideally, we would like to find partners and set up joint ventures in foreign markets to expand this technology together with DX technology. We are looking to expand into developed countries with significant mining industries.
Imagine we come back in four years and have this interview again for your 65th anniversary. What would you like to tell us? What is your dream for this company? What goals do you want to achieve by then?
One of our goals is to complete the 'smart factory' and bring it to the international market. Our current business is centered on belt conveyors, but we have also developed a new robot SI (system integration) business from 2018, specializing in robot-based automation for the manufacturing industry, and are working to solve the manpower shortage problem stemming from Japan's declining birthrate and aging population. In addition to the conveyor and robot SI businesses, the company aims to provide a variety of solutions across a wide range of industries and hopes to diversify its business in the future.