Yokoyama Kogyo is a leading Japanese specialist in metal stamping and welding. Founded in 1951, the company initially focused on supplying the construction industry – it manufactured roofs, walls and gutters – before branching out into automobile parts, specializing in metal parts for automobile seats. With innovative solutions such as its patented ‘smart forge press’ technology, president Eisuke Yokoyama explains how Yokoyama Kogyo is at the leading edge of innovation in the metal stamping industry.
What does monozukuri mean to you and your company and what are some of the competitive advantages of Japanese firms that allow them to remain competitive overseas?
If we look at Aichi prefecture, since 2009 the number of orders in the automotive sector decreased and that is predicted to continue. As a company engaged in this market, we concerned about the trend and conducted market research. In response to the shift of car manufacturing overseas (where the car will be sold), we felt that we needs to produce our automotive parts overseas.
As a producer of car seats, our company was the very first to feel the impact of this decrease, and at that time we couldn’t imagine selling our products directly abroad. That was why we have decided to set-up our factory overseas. We conducted our market research in the United States, China and the Tohoku region of Japan, and we are also advancing our production in Thailand to close the domestic gap. One of our major clients in Thailand is NHK, and within 100 km of the factory there were a lot of automobile manufacturers, so there are lots of opportunities to acquire new clients.
When we set up business in Thailand, I realised that the quality was not the best, but we could still make products. Japan may have higher standards of quality, but customer don’t always look for that. Another aspect is that we were able to train and teach our staff in Thailand within a couple of years, which was very surprising to me. Through this experience, I realised that it is possible pass down and teach a lot of things, and equally important as seeking for the quality is the ability to create something unique and original.A lot of how we do things is based on the experience we gained in Thailand.
Advance into Thailand gave us a chance to rethink our monozukuri. Yokoyama Kogyo has its origins in metal building materials processing. When the Ise Bay Typhoon hit Japan in 1959, which was one of the worst natural disasters, we were the only company in the region that did not raise prices out of concern for our customers. The company received great trust and has continued to be needed in the community for more than 60 years since then. Yokoyama Kogyo's monozukuri has continued to produce essential building materials and automotive parts, and although they may appear to be disparate businesses, our monozukuri is connected to each other through metals and processing methods.
Our global experience in Thailand has given us a perspective on how to build many strengths in a smaller detail yet in a wider range. And I feel that Yokoyama Kogyo’s ability to consider a global market option when commercializing its new strengths has become a new starting point for our monozukuri.
Could you tell us more about your smart forage press and its distinguishing features?
When we went to Thailand, we realised that we didn’t have a lot of competing tools or products. We wanted to find something that is unique to us, and the two conditions I wanted to meet are finding a field that was new to us and do something that requires craftsmanship. So I decided to pause the next global expansion and focus on the development of our strength and technology in Japan first to be competitive both domestically and globally. Also, we don't want to develop a product that takes years and years to create, because it's difficult to implement. Instead, we decided that since we have strength in mass production using the press machine, we can add elements to make the production itself easier. For example, a press die that is used to make 100 pieces a year is created in a completely different way than one that is made to make 30,000 pieces a year. Specifically, there was a proprietary technology that the press die maker had that is not yet been used in the production, and we wanted to make it compatible with mass production. The technique we have discovered was an unconventional process to create a beautiful cross section that would normally be cut by a machine but was done in a single shot using a press. Afterward, we launched it as “Smart Forge Press”.
There were five companies, including Yokoyamakogyo, who were interested in developing this kind of technology at the time. They all had prototypes and tested them, but four of the companies gave up, with us being the only ones left. By doing these tests, we gradually learnt more about the techniques and improved the production of the press dies. We had the flexibility of accepting new concepts which read us to the success of mass production of the unconventional die press. We filled that gap and found many little strengths in the process.
At first, Smart forge press was not well understood because it was a technology that did not exist in Japan. We also have products for the niche market, providing press dies with various surfaces, but these press dies are more expensive and not a lot of companies buy them. From this experience, we have learnt that instead of proposing to change a product fully to customers it is better to propose changing certain parts of the product. From that, we started seeing an increase in orders.
Your company entered the decarbonization market as a trader of solar power generating equipment and storage batteries. What motivated you to diversify in this field?
During the Covid situation some of our factories stopped operation, and as the president, I have reviewed the strengths of our company that we can utilise. We also looked for ways to reduce costs so that we can stay profitable even with temporary factory shutdowns.
For example, implementing technology such as this collaborative robot.
And installation of self-consumption solar power generation systems. Combining our own electrical technology with residential solar power generation technology, in which we had more than 25 years of experience, I thought it is possible to do it by our company. Japanese management is also beginning to commit carbon neutrality, and investing in this segment may continue for 10 to 15 years, with us having experience in factories and solar panels, we were able to be highly competitive.
Two years ago, when the pandemic started, within six months we initiated three new projects which are masks, solar power, and polishing technology. We want to be flexible, which doesn’t mean that just because we started we have to continue, but to know when to stop and redirect ourselves. Thus, we decided not to pursue masks, but instead we decided to use the cloth for the projects into making shirts.
To what degree do you collaborate with other companies and use their expertise and are you looking for new partners here and in overseas markets?
We collaborate a lot, especially with companies that have strong points in what we need. We keep technologies and concepts internal, but other than that we collaborate and ask for support from other companies because it increases the speed and quality of production. With solar panels, we come up with the concept, but installation is outsourced.
A cocktail shaker requires a very tight construction. By changing the polishing of the metal with innovation of Smart Forge Press, the taste of the cocktail is clearer and smoother, and the liquid becomes colder. However, it is not enough to polish it smooth because there needs to be more air in the cocktails. With regular cocktail shakers, after five to ten minutes, taste of the cocktail changes as ingredients re-separate , but with our technology that does not occur so easily. First, we come up with the concept, then production. We focus on the concept, polish and sales, and the design is done by product design company in Tokyo . With the actual sale, we work with a PR company in Tokyo which has only female staff, as their perspective is different from ours.
We also have a partner in Niigata that produces stainless products. We have the capabilities to do a lot of these processes, but it is better to let other companies do this on our behalf. To us, speed is very important, and outsourcing reduces costs. Also, if we tried to do everything internally, we would be limited in what we can do, and with other companies we can use their technology to deliver to customers’ needs.
Are you looking to expand into new markets like in Thailand? If so, where?
In the automotive parts business, we see the increase in the number of EV cars as a threat but also as an opportunity. Because the ability to produce both in Japan and Thailand will be more advantageous as global common article increases. Our goals for the next ten years are to start doing business with European mega-suppliers and to expand our network in Southeast Asia, mainly with Japanese companies. To achieve this, we would develop new production technologies in Japan that will give us an advantage overseas and would like to create a strong network by sharing the production technologies with our own factory in Thailand and overseas partner companies.
Besides, BIRDY. currently exports to 22 countries and regions from Japan. We would like to continue to add more attractive products with the spirit of Yokoyama Kogyo's monozuruki and export them to more countries as a monozukuri company that can compete globally from Japan. As a goal for the next ten years, we want to export BIRDY. to 50 countries.