Having celebrated 120 years of history in 2017, Meidensha Corporation aims to play a major role in shaping the next century through its wide-ranging operations spanning IT, automotive, energy, water and transport. At the same time that Meidensha is contributing to the advancement of next-generation semiconductors and electronic vehicles with its proprietary technologies, the company will also support the rollout of vital infrastructure projects in fast-growing Southeast Asia, where its long-standing expertise in water, electricity and railways will help to support the region’s rapid urbanization and socio-economic development. We speak to president Takeshi Miida to learn more about the company and its operations, as well as how it is helping developed nations like the US with its aging power infrastructure problem.
In the last twenty-five years we have seen the rise of regional competitors in Taiwan and China who have replicated the Japanese monozukuri at a cheaper cost. Japan though has been able to maintain its leadership through its high quality and ability to produce products for niche fields. What for you is the essence of monozukuri and how has it allowed you to become a global leader?
Japanese technology is characterized by its traditional work ethic and attitude toward manufacturing, in other words it is a technology-oriented artisan spirit and the pursuit of constant improvement. Japanese people are patient to do the same thing for a long time, so they have an advantage in technique based on this endless study of their craft. For endless improvement, problems are easily found when you use the same tools or do the same job for a long time and, as a result, the focus tends to be placed on performance and quality.
We can find the essence of monozukuri in the fields that require undocumented techniques, competitive manufacturing and technique succession. The undocumented techniques are made up of unique know how together with undocumented skills. The competitive manufacturing process is required in the fields of Total Quality Control (TQC) and kaizen-based fields. Technique succession is essential in fields which require continuous improvement, for example, Japan has been good in automobile manufacturing which requires the use of many components, or in the printing field, which requires liquid control techniques.
Tracing back through history, after the Meiji restoration the government tried to pursue industrialisation and modernization. In a country which lacks natural resources, Japan has earned foreign currency through the export of industrial products made with foreign materials but with added value from Japan. This has been the case since and will remain so moving forward for Japan. In those days, all industrial products were imported and even engineers were imported too so the government established institutions and schools to produce our own engineers. The Ministry of Industry invited 624 experts from abroad and they introduced the idea of giving paramount importance to engineers saying they are so important to social development that they should be equally considered with medical doctors.
Traditionally speaking, Japan’s fundamental strengths can be seen in: the building Todaiji Temple in Nara with the world’s largest wooden building; the fact that guns were made only one year after they first arrived in Japan; and performing periodical rebuilding of Ise shrine which includes more than 1500 elaborate pieces.
Last but not least, Mr. Hosui Shigemune, who worked and was a young man in the Meiji Restoration Era, established the company in 1897 just thirty years after the restoration.
You mentioned in your answer some key words associated with Japanese manufacturing such as kaizen and focusing on performance and quality. As a global company, how are you able to maintain the same quality whether you produce here in Japan or overseas?
Constant design review during product development is indispensable to improve the quality level, especially first time products or products just after design change, they tend to be defective. We must be very careful at this stage. We must have a high level of material quality management through our procurement process. Human errors will be minimized through mechanization during manufacturing processes and shop tests before shipment is always done and we make every effort to always enhance reliability.
In our overseas factories we make it a rule to make only those products that we have already had success in Japan with. There are two ways to establish overseas operations: one by new factory and another from joint ventures or co creations, either way we always focus on our area of speciality. Customization for each market requirement is done by ourselves or through collaboration with the local subsidiaries.
Our domestic production serves as a mother plant for all the overseas factories and supports them like her children for: safety and quality control, manufacturing technology, product design and factory operations and supplier’s management. In key areas such as China and ASEAN countries we have a regional headquarters for those support measures.
We found it very interesting how you could cater to several sectors such as: power and energy, railway systems, and water infrastructure. But at the core of your business is your expertise in the manufacturing of electrical equipment. As you branch out into other business, such as industrial components or Information and Communication Technology (ICT), how are you able to create synergies between your various business segments and expertise?
Our core area is Asian countries and the most important thing here is to enhance the people in these countries. All countries have their own specification on power system or railway system and the people in each country have to cater to the local requirements and we must judge whether the people there have the ability to customize such specifications. It is also important to gain the trust of the customers, talking of synergies, we already have this fame and belief from the customers and we can utilize it in another business in which we branch out into as we pursue a variety of industrial areas.
It is interesting that you spoke of the people of Asia, as when we researched your company we found that you have a large social component to your business. The UN predicts that the next world war will be a water based war which will hurt emerging economies. You specialize in creating water infrastructure systems such as water purification plants and salination plants. How do you believe the world can tackle water shortages in the future and what technology has Meidensha developed to tackle this problem?
We have the core technology of ceramic membranes (filters) which are used for purification and the recycling of water. Each country has its own water quality policy. Japan is a country with strict water control policy, so applying these standards to other countries can be a costly solution. Therefore, it is very important how to meet the standards and requirements of each country.
In regards to maintenance operations, the French company Veolia and Suez are very competitive in this area and they have excellent know-how which makes it difficult for us to enter this market. But we do have technical know-how for ceramic filters and a limited number of companies in the world can do this.
Increasingly we are seeing the electrification of all aspects of our lives from electrical vehicles to automated manufacturing sites. We are expecting big changes in the energy world as we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. How will Meidensha contribute to the energy industry and what will the energy industry look like ten years from now?
Considering carbon-neutral, electricity is very important. Looking at our global business, we see that developing Asian countries are urbanizing and are spending around 80% of their budget on railways and electricity. We see expanding opportunities in Vietnam where we made a careful analysis of infrastructure spending, the per capita GDP is $2085 as of 2015 and Vietnam has made it a goal to be a modern industrialized country and they have spent a lot of money to achieve this goal. I visited Ho Chi Minh City some years back and realised how dark it was there at night. They have since been investing in electrical plants there to expand electricity by 3.5 times in 15 years to 2030. They have placed a lot of importance on high speed railways, highways and international airports.
Urbanization progresses from an initial phase of expansion to sophistication. In the phase of urbanisation expansion the population increases in the suburbs due to the flow of people from farming villages to districts surrounding the cities. To cope with such rapid population growth priority is given to the basic infrastructure including housing, water, sewage and energy. In the sophistication phase the population begins to concentrate in the city centres as the progress of the economy due to globalisation and change to knowledge intensive industries increases. What is needed in this phase is to have efficient and comfortable transport networks in the metropolitan area, attractive parks and cultural facilities which lead to the securing of highly skilled personnel and an airport as a hub for the international network. These projects are smaller in size compared with the large building utilities in the suburbs but the quality need is high so as to ensure there is no interrupted electricity supply and this will provide room for companies such as ours to provide our extensive experience and know how.
As emerging countries enter an age of sophistication we will see that having sophisticated infrastructure networks gains more importance. We are seeing new tech such as IoT, AI, big data and 5G are forcing companies to offer new solutions to their customers. In your case you are offering remote diagnosis, smart diagnosis of electrical substations, the optimisation of water treatment facilities and AI treatments. Can you tell us more about your new and innovative technologies and tell us what impact ICT will have on infrastructure twenty years from now?
We are the company to cope with protecting social infrastructure, but recently the number of natural disasters is increasing due to climate change. We have a unique system in response to the issue of how to protect the city when it rains. Our manhole cap has ‘intelligence,’ it gathers the water level information in sewage pipes in real time and it goes to the cloud along with weather information and is then used to make predictions in items of emergency and we can provide residents with warnings that a risk of water blowing out is imminent. This is one of our efforts to utilize AI and ICT to protect the city.
How do you imagine Ho Chi Minh in twenty years?
It will be like Shanghai in twenty years I imagine because there is a very young population and there is a lot of room to grow.
We know that you make a test system for EVs and that you also have an e-Axle, an integrated motor and inverter for EVs. Could you tell us how your company is helping companies to transition to EVs?
The most important thing for EVs will be safety as the technology of driving with electricity is something that never happened. Motors must be smaller and higher in torque and the materials will be key and dielectric and insulation technology will be needed to cope with the smaller sizes too. Cooling technology will also be important in this respect, cooling will be done by water, oil and air. Oil is most effective in this respect but the advanced technology and know-how is necessary to design and place the oil pipes around the motor to allow the oil to flow efficiently around the motor. We can do this and thus the size for the electric motor can be achieved.
Talking about the battery, current products are still heavy and big and many companies are trying to develop ones that are half in size but same cruising distance. We believe it will be very crucial for a successful market.
The size of the car varies depending on the manufacturer, but in terms of how to fit in the space required by the automobile OEM, we have the advantage of being able to realize a motors and inverters design that meets their requirements.
In the semiconductor field we see new techniques such as atomic layer deposition are enabling makers to produce smaller semiconductors, however the equipment ALD is very expensive which means the actual deposition rate is very low. We know that in 2020 you established the Meiden Nano Process innovation in order to sell your new ALD/OER film deposition equipment. Can you tell us more about this equipment and how you will contribute to the next generation of semiconductors?
This is pure ozone generated technology and to utilize it we were thinking of expanding this area of nano processes. Though we were originally developing only specific tech for purifying the ozone to very high levels, using the highly purified ozone combined with the ethylene we found a material called the OH radical which easily causes a chemical reaction and this allowed us to realize room-temperature film deposition. Our suite of products and process services are designed to meet the semiconductor industry’s demand for flexible and waterproof films for liquid crystal displays. Other possible applications also include films for PET beverage bottles, and manufacturing parts to reduce automobile weight.
As environmental regulations are increasing all around the world, we are seeing that there is a strong demand to replace ageing power equipment, especially in the US. Can you tell us how you are looking to gain market share in this specific field (ageing power equipment) and what strategy you will adopt to enter and be successful in it?
Each equipment is ageing in a series of processes in which electric power is generated at hydroelectric power plants or coal fired plants and then transmitted and distributed. It’s important to shut down the abnormal current in the power lines with circuit breakers to prevent accidents. The mainstream circuit breaker is using the SF6 gas which has one of the greatest greenhouse potential. Meanwhile, we have the vacuum based circuit breakers that do not use SF6 gas at all in our product line up.
We established a factory last year in South Carolina to make this circuit breaker and it is very popular in ecologically friendly states like California. We will continue to develop such markets with these eco-friendly products while continuing to manufacture highly reliable products.
Imagine that we come back here in ten years and repeat this interview again. What objective or vision would you like to have achieved for the company or perhaps personally as well?
As a company we should become a company that the people rely on when they have a problem with the infrastructure or the environment and to be a trusted company for the people. Personally, I love music and I actually play the violin. Therefore, I love to travel overseas to listen to classical music around the world, but have not been able to travel at all since last year. Listening to the music you can understand the cultural background of each country and to do business in each of these countries it is important to really know the people's background well.