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Komatsu Industries looking to support the growing EV sector

Interview - April 9, 2023

With the EV market growing each day, Komatsu’s press machines are proving indispensable.

YASUSHI KITADE, PRESIDENT OF KOMATSU INDUSTRIES CORP.
YASUSHI KITADE | PRESIDENT OF KOMATSU INDUSTRIES CORP.

In the last 25-30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturing competitors who have replicated Japanese monozukuri processes but have taken advantage of cheaper labor costs, pushing Japan out of mass industrial markets. However, we still see that many Japanese are leaders in niche B2B fields. How have Japanese firms been able to maintain their leadership despite the stiff price competition?

It is difficult for me to explain overall for all Japanese companies, so instead, I will talk specifically about my company. If I were to briefly explain our business, 70% of our products are used in the automotive industry. The large-sized presses that we make are 100% catering to the automotive industry, and almost 50% of sales of the mid-sized and small presses are for the automotive industry and others are for the electric industry and other sectors. Regarding our second business, the sheet metal machinery (laser and plasma cutting, bending, and welding robots), a majority is for the construction machinery and industrial sectors. Our business is split, with 75% of our business focused on our press machinery, and the other 25% focused on sheet metal machinery. As you can see, a majority of our customers are in the automotive industry, typically automotive manufacturers, and tier-1 customers. We provide machinery to these companies that have long lifespans so usually, one machine can operate for 10-30 years. We connect with our customers through providing this service, to be a lasting partner.

Here at Komatsu, it is important that we retain our long-lasting relationships with our customers. However, companies like electrical manufacturers often change suppliers, so in those cases, we have to be flexible in catching up with this change. To be completely honest, it is true that our business is not successful all the time. We have been pushed around a lot by Chinese and Taiwanese companies. In order to increase our competitiveness, we have been pioneering the introduction of new technologies such as our servo press, one of the earliest examples launched on the global market back in the year 2000.

 

The automotive market is undergoing a time of great change with the switch to EVs. As a result, a lot of companies are now starting to utilize newer and lighter materials as a way to offset the heavy lithium-ion batteries they need to carry. How have the changes in materials affected your business?

It is true that with the change to EVs the change to lightweight materials has become a trend in the industry. Making the vehicle lightweight and strengthening car bodies for passengers’ safety used to be the sole focus, however, recently in the past few years, we have seen carbon neutrality added to the list of targets. The reason why is that making the vehicle lightweight is now a must. At first carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) was considered the possible solution for lightweight, but CFRP is not suitable for carbon neutrality now. So, with the recent trends in the industry, there are fewer companies using CFRP now, and it is only used in a few parts. Amid the CN trend, high-tensile steel has been highlighted more than ever, and we have developed a cutting machine catering to trim the press-formed parts of high tensile steel. Our TLH, 3D laser cutting machine is the best solution for trimming hot-formed parts.

On the other hand, amid the carbon neutrality trend, product development has led to cold-formed high tensile steel having gained almost the same strength as hot-formed without hot forming. Komatsu has been developing suitable press machines with our customers for cold-formed ultra-high tensile steel.

For now, we see a growing need for our machinery, however, if there is a change in material needs then we have to find a way to make our presence felt in the market. EV cars have not penetrated that much in Japan, but I think that the move towards more electrification will continue. We wish to continue to support automotive companies with the manufacture of EVs and focus on new emerging EV companies. Our products are long-lasting, so it is crucial that we provide long-lasting maintenance service and retain good relationships with our customers.

We have a large-sized servo press machine which has an exerted force of over 6000 tons. This press has multiple functionalities and I think this speaks to the uniqueness of servo presses themselves. The quality of EV vehicles is oftentimes determined by the distance it can run and operate, but at the same time, the design aspect is crucial, so we are now talking with automotive companies about the strengths of our servo press, which can do so many things at once.

 

The H1F-2 series can draw stainless steel as well as other unprocessed materials. Can you give us a brief overview of how the H1F-2 series is superior to more conventional servo press machines?

Our H1F-2 series is in fact a small-sized press machine that manufactures small components such as the lid for batteries. We were one of the very early companies to launch a servo press into the market and our strength is the precision and the high-quality production using sensors.   

   

You have the TLH 3D laser fiber processing machine which has the world’s fastest cutting performance. How were you able to achieve this unique feature when developing the TLH model?

The high-end products for us are the TLH series where we have 3D laser processing machines. The TLH is the world’s fastest. TLH is used along with hot-forming technology and is a cutter for pillar parts used in automobiles. Since it is a piece of machinery used after hot-forming, it requires speed. We have many tier-1 customers all over the world with this piece of machinery.

 

Komatsu Industries outlined its DX strategy earlier this year, aiming to actively utilize and promote DX. One such digital technology that we saw was the Komtrax, an operation management system that collectively manages machines at factories or sites. What are some of the strengths of the Komtrax, and can you tell us a little bit more about your DX strategy?

Komtrax is a system developed by Komatsu, and since 2009, we have started implementing the system in our structure as well. At first, it was only to see data remotely, and we have since been updating the system and now we have been providing the service to our customers so they can check the situation of the machinery in their sites. Operation and maintenance can even be tracked overseas in factories in countries like the US, China, and Southeast Asia.

We are now developing a new application that could contribute to efficient production for our customers. The service has been released and is currently in operation.



Large-sized presses are machinery for the manufacture of body parts for automobiles, and when it stops operating, it can have an effect on the production of the automobile itself, so, therefore, it is important to keep the machinery operating continuously and to ensure that we have a preventive maintenance system incorporated into each machine in order to keep staff up to date on the machine's health.

There are many components in each piece of our machinery, and each component has a prediction on its lifespan. We are analyzing and taking data on each component to determine its longevity. There are many different customers, and as such, each customer takes their approach to our machinery a little differently. Some customers keep spare parts for our machinery and do regular replacements, whereas some do not. We are trying to use this system to urge our customers to do predictive maintenance and parts replacements.

 

How accurate is this system in determining the lifespan of a product?

It is a little hard to answer that, it is almost like trying to predict an earthquake. Let’s just say it is around 70-80% accurate. With the servo press we have started off with the bearing, and we are continually adding new components to the list. Our customers can see visually and are alerted when a component is in need of replacement. This is a good way to encourage efficient production to our customers. Those with spare parts will know when to do with a replacement and those who do not want to do one will be warned beforehand so they can contact us.

 

What role does collaboration and co-creation play in your business model, and are you currently looking for any overseas partnerships?

We are not actively seeking partnerships, but rather we work together with Komatsu Limited, and they have bases all across the globe for construction machinery. Basically, our international operations are conducted with Komatsu and for the large-sized press machines, our employees go directly to the customers and do business. For mid-to-small-sized machinery, it is more about having an agent network.

 

Moving forward, are there any specific countries or regions that you would like to enter for further expansion?

Our international operations focus mainly on mid-sized-to-large-sized machinery. For our business, it is not only one-off sales, but rather we have maintenance services, so wherever there is a requirement for maintenance, we need to have a base to provide engineering services. Basically, what I am trying to say is that once a customer buys from us, we are in for the long haul. Our mission is to keep the machines that we are providing for our customers operating.

We launched another overseas subsidiary in Brazil last year. Brazil is a country that major automotive companies are operating out of and they are using our presses there. Although the quantity might not be that large, we have a base there to provide maintenance services there.

 

You have been able to develop unique products and pioneer new technologies. This year you launched your TFP510-3 plasma cutting machine. Are there any other new products that you would like to showcase to us today?

As you have mentioned, we have focused on the development of our plasma cutting machines for metal parts, and now fiber-lasers have become a trend. We have been developing our fiber-laser cutting processes so that now this cutting can be done in water, which will result in environmental friendliness and energy savings for our customers.

 

In the future, are you looking to introduce your products and increase your customer support in EV fields overseas?

We are looking deeply into overseas markets for the US, and some companies there will often buy the old Japanese automotive factories and transform them into EV factories. We have been approaching them since we have been providing service to these existing Japanese factories.

In terms of China, there are new emerging EV companies, so we are approaching them so that we can increase our sales channels. The big difference between all of the markets right now is that the US and China have these new emerging EV companies, whereas Japan and Europe have long-established automotive companies that are now trying to electrify and transition over.

 

Imagine that we come back in two years' time and have this interview all over again. What are your goals do you hope to achieve?

What is important in manufacturing is providing the products and service, and there has to be a balance between the quality of the product and the after-services added on top. We wish to keep our business growing by providing this comprehensive solution to our customers.

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