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Japan Uniflow: Opening the doors to innovation

Interview - November 15, 2022

Based in Tokyo, Japan Uniflow is the go-to manufacturer of swing, sliding and roll-up doors used in factories, stores, warehouses and many other settings.  Among Uniflow’s major strengths is its commitment to delivering its high-quality, made-to-order doors within five days of starting production.

SAYUMI ISHIBASHI, PRESIDENT OF JAPAN UNIFLOW CO., LTD.
SAYUMI ISHIBASHI | PRESIDENT OF JAPAN UNIFLOW CO., LTD.

Over the past few decades, Japan as an advanced economy has seen stiff price competition coming from manufacturers in emerging markets, nevertheless we still find that in quality-sensitive sectors that demand advanced craftsmanship, Japanese companies both large and small still have a technological edge or large market share. As a manufacturer of doors, how do you ensure that your products remain competitive despite this price competition coming from your Asian neighbors?

We think our advantage is that we do produce our own product. We have a strong pride in being a Monozukuri company. Our competitive edge is that we can control our quality, produce in short lead times and deliver on time, and understand our customer needs through direct communication with them through our own sales staff. With all these strengths, we are able to produce our product with all custom made sizes and functions.

As part of our service at UNIFLOW, we strive to reach short lead times. This means we can produce doors in the shortest time in the industry and we deliver more than 90% on time. Let's say there is a new construction site, and on that site, they have their own steps and processes. But at any construction site there is uncertainty, this can cause huge headaches and massive delays, and can lead to huge profit loss. We at UNIFLOW contact the construction site and tell them we are ready to send the product in five days. Is this okay? It is very simple but it is effective. Understanding the job schedule of our customer, we can coordinate our delivery according to their current schedule. This is what we call the “five-day rule”. We won’t start production of the doors until we know the product will be shipped out from our factory five days later. This five-day rule helps a construction site manager looking for the space to store our product and avoid any accident storing the product at the site. Also, we can reduce our stocks. Of course, when doing something like this, cooperation from the supply chain side is extremely necessary so it is a must for us to establish good communication with our supply chain partners. In order to successfully fulfill this five-day rule, we give rapid notice to suppliers and have the suppliers ready to go as well as ourselves.

As you can see in the example I’ve given you, it is not just pure monozukuri manufacturing we are conducting, it is in fact a combination of not only craftsmanship but also services and communication with a number of different parties in order to fulfill a promise of quality and speed to our customers. It is our competitive edge, and it may be possible because we are working as a team. All of our orders are different sizes and have different optional parts for different needs. Our product is custom made, with a short lead time. It is possible because our operation is “Made To Order”. Our Saitama factory is not a fully automated factory. We choose MTO production rather than a mass production line. There are many factors to consider when installing automation, and we felt that in order to retain our flexibility and quick responsiveness, full automation wasn’t the route to take.

Let’s imagine that construction site again, and let's say that the site is a new supermarket. At almost the end of the construction schedule, after the refrigerator and  freezer cases are installed, the actual measurements might end up different from the original plan. This is a situation where we can quickly respond to that kind of change and be able to customize the fitting to meet the customer's requirements. This is especially needed in a retail location like a supermarket, where space is a premium, and the store wants to maximize shelf space for items. As I said these changes can happen at the end of the construction schedule. How they make the perfect fitting is changing the size of door opening (space). This is the last space they can touch. Then our door size changes at the very last minute. They know that we accept changes until five days before shipment. If they don’t have the door installed before the inspection of the local health department, they can’t open the store. So we make sure they can open the store on time.

 

You mentioned your “five-day rule,” being very reliant on the relationship with your suppliers. In recent times the world’s global supply chain has been incredibly disrupted, specifically here in Asia with shipping delays, lack of boats and freights, and finally China's zero-COVID policies. How have you maintained this super stable supply that you need for the “five-day rule” in such a time of disruption?

Most of the parts that we use are made in Japan and are produced by SMEs similar to ourselves. You could say that there is a common bond shared amongst the SMEs of Japan. For some parts, we do import from abroad, but those would be parts that we are able to stock up on, things that are standard sizes. Our main products are the swing doors and the high-speed roller doors, so for those, we need to be able to respond to the needs of our clients, and therefore we make sure that the parts and the materials we use are produced in Japan. It isn’t about just procuring and purchasing, and I think that the fact that we ourselves are a manufacturer, it feels like we are in a position to understand the point of view of our suppliers. It means that we are more than willing to help and collaborate with our suppliers on problem-solving, and anything we do to help is just deepening the relationship that we already have.

There is one thing that I frequently hear that we think is an incorrect perception, and that is when a company procures a part, they want that part as cheap as possible. I think this is sorely mistaken, and it really isn’t about cheap or expensive, but instead, it’s more about whether or not there’s capacity in Japan and the Japanese supplier's side. If there is no capacity left that means we have to purchase from another country or another manufacturer. If there is capacity left then it is better to actually produce on our side here in Japan, because when you look at the final picture there is more value coming out.

I talked earlier about the short lead times, which is our company’s characteristic, however that does not come free of charge, and to be honest our doors are not so cheap. In fact, they are on the expensive side, but with our delivery service incorporated we feel that to our customers, there is a considerable amount of value. We are trying to construct a win-win situation where everyone can reap the profits. We don’t mark down our prices to an extreme level. Of course, we do have discounts (this is very common for construction material suppliers) but we find it important to have our sales staff understand the value of the structure we have in place and the fact that the sales staff need to educate the customers on that too.

 

Could you tell us a bit more about the evolution of the firm and maybe some of the key milestones achieved throughout the company’s history?

Takashi Uno was my father. His first job was a driver for a foreign trading company, and the executives at the company liked him so much that they invited him to join the sales staff there. That company eventually decided to get out of Japan and cease its operations here, and what the company was doing was importing ice cube machines. Interestingly, during that era, there were no ice cube machines in Japan so when that company decided to stop its operations, a gap in the market was created. They had to have a maintenance company to do something with those machines and that is why my father decided to launch a company (1965) that was first of all, in charge of importing the same kinds of ice cube machines, but secondly also doing the maintenance service.

After that, companies like Panasonic and Hoshizaki raised their hands and said that they wanted to manufacture the same sort of machines. It was my father that was teaching Hoshizaki how to create these sorts of machines. As this import business was going well, my father decided to go to the US to find goods, and the company transformed into more of a trading company. This was back in the days when the Japanese economy was growing and there weren’t any supermarkets in Japan yet, so a lot of people went to the US to actually inspect and look at those supermarkets that were there. My father was assisting in this activity of scouting supermarkets to bring the idea to Japan. When he was there, companies described to him this weird door with a lot of spaces around the door. It was a bit wobbly and the companies really wanted to try it. My father was very instrumental in bringing this whole idea to Japan.  



We know that your company has created a series of energy-saving products, including strip curtains and hyper accordion curtains, that allow for the control of temperature as well as particles and insects. Could you tell us a bit more about this technology and how it allows your clients to save on their energy bills?

In terms of the supermarkets, the energy usage amounts are the biggest in the refrigeration open showcases, and the heating bill. From the open cases there is cold air coming out and there are complaints from customers that it is too cold in the store or sometimes moist from cases can wet the floor and cause a slippery surface. Therefore, there needs to be more heat, and that, of course, would lead to more energy consumption. With Covid-19, the store needs to have ventilation, which also causes the energy bill to be sky high. What would be handy in that case would be our night covers and strip curtains, so those would be able to cover the showcases at nighttime and during the day they can cover the showcases yet have easy access to the product in the cases. These covers would not let the cold air out and eventually would lead to energy savings. Actually, this market is extremely big and we have all kinds of supermarkets and stores adopting our night covers and strip curtains.

The second thing I wanted to cover was our hyper curtains in the Japanese factories. If these factories had enough cash, they could theoretically create separate factories for separate uses, but that is not the case for many factories, where in one space they want to segregate, and if they create a big wall between spaces to segregate that would omit their flexibility and that is not good. However, they do require a partition, so that would be where our hyper curtain becomes interesting to them. We would be able to do the temperature management needed, as well as create a partition between environments in an open space. One big characteristic of our offerings however is that we can also offer multiple types of roll-up doors and we can activate those via interlock technology.

Our doors allow us to control the airflow and temperature to an extreme level in order to protect goods and services that a company may handle. By having multiple doors opening and closing at separate timings using interlock technology we can control the needed temperature. That is why high speed is extremely necessary, and if a set of doors are opening and closing slowly it can allow many contaminants inside like insects for example. Additionally, with our high speed door, we can control the settings to only allow the high speed door to open a certain way.

 

A lot of firms nowadays are putting a big emphasis on infection control such as door handles, thanks to in no small part the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some of the solutions you have created with infection control in mind?

A lot of people have been talking about anti-germ measures on door handles, and there are all sorts of sprays and sheets that you can put on them but they only last for a short amount of time and they can only reach a certain level of effectiveness. The best solution is clearly not to touch them at all, and that is where our automatic doors come into play. In those cases, you don’t really have to touch the door at all. In food production, we have seen the utilization of systems that check if workers have sanitized themselves before a door might open. We are providing those kinds of systems, but I also think that in this case, our swing doors might be applicable too. You don’t have to touch them, and the thing we really specialize in as a company is we want to provide answers and solutions that cater best to the possible needs of our clients. Our employees really love thinking about the best solutions to these issues, and you have to understand that there is a reason behind people wanting doors. Take our swing doors, for example, the reason someone might want a swing door is to ensure the flow of people, whilst at the same time making sure people are not able to peep inside.

There are so many various environments on the customer's side, for example, they may be in a very windy location. Our mission is to create a closure that is appropriate for each and every different environment.

 

One thing I found interesting when researching your company was the variety of clients you’ve worked for. Out of all these projects that you have done, which one was the most challenging for you to overcome?

There are actually a lot of requests that we receive where it is actually very difficult for us to go in and help. One example is the swing doors we have in the South Pole. As you can imagine, maintenance on that is going to be really difficult. Another example is the Japanese Cash Issuing Agency which utilizes our doors, and as you can imagine in this case there was a lot of difficulty in terms of security and secrecy.

 

In our research, we saw that in the 1990s your company expanded abroad in both Shanghai and Singapore. Looking at the future could you tell us a bit more about your international strategy and what are some of the key markets you would like to tackle moving forward?

In regard to the Shanghai office, which was established before I became president. To give you a little background, in 1989 my father passed away very suddenly, and the company replaced him with another person, an employee of the company, and that person was the one that made the decision to open the Shanghai office. From what I understand is that at that time there were a lot of Japanese companies going into China to establish their factories and also supermarkets like AEON followed suit. Our Shanghai office operation was mainly to support them in China, and they were a customer because they had used our doors previously in Japan. We really tried to also seek opportunities where we could produce in China as well, but there was something that we learned from this experience. We learned that the architecture of Japan and China are very different, with Japan having detailed plans of everything they do, and China it was different. In order for swing door to work perfectly, door flame have to stand vertical. Because the doors use gravity, we found that there was so much fixing at the site. We learned that there are different mindsets in different countries.

The Singapore office was established with a completely different mindset. First of all, Singapore allows us access to many other countries in the Southeast Asian region so it was established as a hub. Also, it was established in order to find partners so that we can sell our products and understand the different rules and regulations that each country has. In fact, our Singapore office has only one Japanese person there for that reason, we are hiring local people there. Unfortunately, a side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that employee numbers have gone down and the Singaporean government has made it difficult for other nationalities to enter the country, but for the future, we are hoping to get those numbers back up and collaborate with foreign partners that can provide us with valuable local knowhow.

 

Your company will be celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2025, and if we were to come back again in 3 years' time what would you like to tell us in that interview? What are your goals or ambitions for UNIFLOW for the next 3 years?

Earlier I mentioned that project that I can’t talk about, but by 2025 I hope for that project to be deployed to other places. So if you were to come back and interview me again I would be able to talk about this project in detail, and by doing that I believe that we can expand the possibilities of our company. I want to create an environment where young people can come in and feel like they can learn a lot from working here. The employees here are all very friendly with each other, and many employees have been asking me where the company vacation will be for the 60th anniversary. I also hope that in the next three years our overseas activities continue and that when you come back I can talk more about the successes we have had abroad.  

Another thing I would like to add today is about our roll-up doors because we have talked a lot today about swing doors but have not mentioned the roll-up doors. Our position right now is fourth in terms of rankings in Japan, and there are some other big companies producing these roll-up doors, but one thing that sets us apart is our uniqueness. There is one feature known as the explosion prevention shutter, and these shutters are used in chemical plants or places where wheat powder may cause an explosion by going into a motor. Only UNIFLOW is producing these kinds of shutters, and that is why some of our bigger competitors are actually buying our shutters from us. It really is the characteristics of the field, where our rivals are also our clients. Our goal is to not only target mass products, but also products that nobody else is making, therefore cementing our position as a leader in the industry for innovation.  

The final thing I would like to talk about today is the rolling door of residential doors, which is a response to the aging population problems plaguing Japan. When a person collapses at home, in most cases it happens in the toilet, and in those cases, an ambulance stretcher cannot get in. This type of door allows the ambulance to get the stretcher into the toilet without removing the door, thus getting that patient immediate medical attention that can save lives. We’ve thought long and hard about a product that elderly people in Japan can use, and that is why we came up with this door. Another solution we came up with is the mini-swing door, which even though you use your hip to open it, will not hurt the operator.

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