As the originator of the automated filtering systems, Kurita Machinery supplies its unique products and techniques throughout the world
As a specialized manufacturer of filter presses can you give us your perspective on monozukuri? What does it mean for you and your company, and what are the strengths that make you a one-of-a-kind firm?
That is a very difficult question to answer, but by looking at ourselves I think that monozukuri means that we just focus on solving customer problems. My grandfather founded this company, and initially in the beginning we used to manufacture many kinds of machines, from pumps all the way to machines that cut wood, cut components, or even refrigerators. Among all of these machines, we found a customer that had a problem with filtering and filtration and so we began manufacturing filtering machinery.
At that time we felt that the mechanism of filtration was quite simple, and we thought that if you put a liquid through the machine you were able to filter it. However, my grandfather, who is the founder of this company, as well as the second generation of the president, who is my uncle, always focused on the reason and tricks of filtration.
We were not just selling machines for filtration, but instead converted our business to one that sells the technology for filtration rather than just simply selling machines. I feel that this was a big turning point for the company.
When it comes to filtering, it is actually quite complicated and difficult because there are so many different kinds of liquids as well as so many different parameters. The key is to find out the most efficient parameters or variables that are relevant to the filter and provide that technology to the customer. Although we are the manufacturer of the filter press, looking at the whole process of filtration you can find some other peripheral machines and components like tanks and pumps before the filtration. Before you begin filtration you need a large tank, and after you need a dryer, so although we are the manufacturer of filter presses, we are always eager to find out other opportunities to manufacture the additional components and needed machines. Despite this, we understand that our strength is always filtration, so we always try to focus on the technologies for filtration.
If a much better manager were to come in and run the company they may be able to widen the range of the business and diversify services using the technology we specialize in, however, we think that we are a group of engineers who believe the best course of action is to always focus on one single technology. I believe that this is the reason our company has survived in this industry for so long. When it comes to filtration, as I explained just now, it really is not that easy and can be considered quite a complex task.
We see so many demands coming in from customers, and demands generate different designs for machines. It is like choosing clothes before you go out, you must choose the appropriate clothes for the right occasion. However, one thing to be wary of is that if you are too keen on the details, it will increase the cost. Therefore it is necessary to standardize to some extent, then customize based on the customer’s orders and demands. By doing this we are able to strike a balance between satisfaction for the customers and reducing costs.
In just the last 30 years we have seen Japan go from a powerhouse to the oldest society in the world, and it has been very challenging for SMEs to preserve their manufacturing culture and expertise. Can you tell us how you’ve overseen that change, and what the impact of Japan’s aging society has been on your business?
I graduated from school all the way back in 1992 when the bubble economy burst in Japan, and after graduating I joined a trading company in Tokyo. During my time there I met many manufacturers, and I found that a lot of these manufacturers went bankrupt one after another, whether they were big or small. Most of those companies that went bankrupt were companies that had diversified without having a core technology. I felt, and still feel today that it is very important to be specialized. In our field of engineering, we need to have knowledge of machines and electrical controlled devices, as well as, oof course, filtration. It is very important to have systemic expertise in all these three different fields of knowledge, and once we do we can combine them together to create a single, great technology.
When it comes to the declining population, I think that is not only happening in Japan, but a lot of other countries all around the world are seeing the same trend we are seeing. We are seeing a labor shortage and I would like to address this issue. I believe that IoT will be one of the viable solutions. IoT and sensing technology should be able to monitor and detect any physical reactions that are happening in the closed environment within a machine. We should be able to monitor those movements using these new technologies, and we should be able to find and detect any abnormalities. If we are able to realize this I believe that we can reduce the burden on the workers in the plant. I believe that we can realize this because we have the know-how to find abnormalities and analyze the results. All of these things are possible because we are so specialized in one technology.
Could you share with us in more detail how you are approaching the introduction of IoT and sensing technology into your business?
The squeezer is actually used to make Anko, which is a Japanese sweet red bean paste enjoyed by many people. Anko is made from red beans, and those red beans could be made in Hokkaido or could be made in China. All these different beans have different natures and properties for filtration. The manufacturers of Anko make all sorts of different types of Anko, from expensive ones to cheap ones. Before those manufacturers installed our machines they used to have seasoned workers who were able to tell the best timing for filtration of the different beans by touching them. We incorporated those workers’ expertise into our machines and wrote a program based on their experiences. We have sensors in the machines and now we are able to automatically control the filtration. In other words, we were able to digitize the technologies that were accumulated from Anko manufacturers and preserve them. This is one example in the field of Anko production, and we are trying to make this happen in other fields too.
What you’ve done with Anko can be used as a blueprint to solve the problems of many of your clients by preserving expertise through your sensing technology and writing programs for your machinery. Is there any particular market or sector that you’re targeting or that you see an increase in demand recently?
Chemical followed by steel; in fact, about 60% of customers come from both chemical and steel industries. Most of the plants in these two areas are not very good. They tend to be pretty hot and they treat a lot of acids, so demands for process automation are quite high in these two areas. In Japan, when it comes to filtration, in the chemical or steel-making fields, companies are always trying to reach out to us.
There was recently an interesting story about a material called fluorine resin. During new installations, we use typical filtering presses to do the testing, however for that material we concluded that we should use the machine for Anko squeezing. Our engineers discovered that Anko had a very similar physical nature to fluorine resin. The customer was the best fluorine manufacturer in Japan, and they are making the band for the Apple Watch, and during the process of manufacturing, they need this kind of filtration machine. I’m not exactly sure how the engineers came to this conclusion but the lab there loved the idea and I think this only came about because of our intensive focus on one technology. China is the biggest manufacturer when it comes to fluorine resin, so they are increasingly switching their conventional filter machines to the KM type.
You have talked about the chemical sector and the steel sector as being two particularly important, and often times these factories represent tough operational environments. They can be very hot, there is a lack of space, and they use a lot of energy. Your FM-type filter press helps with costs and energy and can reduce the installation area by 30%. Can you tell us a little bit more about the FM series and how through it you can help your clients?
The basic feature of this FM-type filter press is that it no longer requires a filter plate. There is a story behind how this came to be. One steelmaker used to use a conventional filter press which had an error, resulting in an overload of the machine. They put too much pressure on the filter plate, which then proceeded to crash and consequently was destroyed. We assumed that without a plate you would no longer be able to filter, but what we found out was that the filtration could be done without this plate. This is how this FM-type filter press came to be.
We showcased this machine at an exhibition held in Frankfurt Germany and one manufacturer of filter plates saw it and could not believe their eyes. They felt that their company was in danger of going bankrupt thanks to our machine. At that time Kurita was crowned the front runner of filter presses, and I was very happy to hear that. Being a small company we must treat every problem proposed to us by our customers as R&D seeing as we really don’t have the budget for big and long-winded developments.
While researching your firm we read that you are in the process of strengthening your overseas business and sales. How do you plan on developing your overseas businesso?
I think we have three ways to expand internationally. One is to provide support for Japanese companies which would like to establish plants in overseas markets. Back in the 1950s, we achieved full automation of the filter press, and at that time Japan suffered a lot of environmental pollution. A lot of diseases were driven by that pollution, as well as a high labor cost. I think that is why our machines drew a lot of attention. We would like to go to markets that are experiencing the same issues now.
Additionally, we would like to go out to more advanced countries like America or European countries which have more advanced technologies where we could help by supplying our filtration press machines. An example is there is a new technology to extract fiber from proteins as well as a whole host of other materials and technologies being developed in these advanced countries, and we would like to go there and find exciting new opportunities for our core business.
Would you say that you are interested in collaborating with companies in those developed countries with your unique technology?
Yes, that is something we are very interested in here at Kurita, and a plan we have going forward.
Imagine that we come back on the very last day of your presidency and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us in that interview? What are your goals and dreams for the future of Kurita?
That is an interesting question. I always ask students that visit our company what they would like to write on their gravestones when they die, and it feels like you are asking a similar question right now. My grandfather was known as the founder of the company, and my uncle, the second president, was known as a great engineer. During my time I would like to be known as the president who laid the foundation that enabled Kurita to become a truly global competitor in the filtration industry.