Winches are hidden protagonists that support many aspects of industry and daily life, and Maxpull is the go-to specialist catering to these diverse needs. Founded in 1976, Maxpull specialises in manual and electric winches that move loads vertically or horizontally in a wide range of situations. We spoke with president and CEO Koichi Ono to learn more about the company, its products and their applications.
In recent decades, Japan has seen the rise of competitors like China, South Korea, and Taiwan, who have replicated the Japanese monozukuri process. Yet, we still see many Japanese firms maintaining a large global market share especially in the B2B markets and niche fields. As a specialized winch manufacturer, what does monozukuri mean to you and what are the strengths of Japanese manufacturers that allow them to maintain global market share?
What is important in our monozukuri is assuring safety when we make winches that lift heavy objects. We are in a niche industry, so we listen carefully to the requirements and concerns of our customers. We find out what they want to lift and how they want to hold it. Our unique strength lies in talking with our customers and finding out what objects need to be moved and which direction it needs to move. Based on the information we gather; we map out the route for the wires. This is our proposed wire mapping. This is the winch, the pulley, and the red lines are the wires. We used one winch to move the curtains horizontally. Based on a request, we map out the wires and give a proposal to our clients. This is the actual outcome. This curtain opens and closes with the use of our winch.
We go to the site to perform measurements and planning, but we do not have the license to install. We observe and give suggestions. On different sites, we utilise similar systems. For example, on one site, we used two winches to move a roof. When it comes to our customers, we do not have a particular field we target, but we work with a wide variety of customers.
More than 40% of your production is for special winches which are custom made orders according to your clients' needs. Your products have a wide variety of applications from external architecture to construction. How are you able to coordinate with so many different types of professionals and apply your expertise in different fields?
Our forty-seven-year history as a company has been very crucial in acquiring the expertise of being a solution provider. Let me share with you some of our customers and some of our product applications. Have you ever seen McDonald's rolling advertisements? They use our Maxpull winch to take it up and down. For a school's baseball stadium, the back net is controlled by our winch. School facilities are our customers as well. In zoos, our winches are used to keep the net up to keep flamingos from flying out. At a Japanese festival, due to the electric poles, we needed to use our winch for the huge doll to duck down and go under the poles. These are some of our product applications.
In the next fifteen years, one out of three Japanese people will be over the age of sixty-five which has two major manufacturing ramifications: first is the labour crisis. It is becoming harder to find new, young, and talented graduates to replace the seasoned workers and pass on the manufacturing know-how to the next generation. The second is the shrinking of the domestic market. What impact has Japan's unique demographics had on your business?
In economic terms, the ages between fifteen and sixty-four are regarded as the productive labour force. In 2020, Japan had a labour force population of 70.41 million. But in 2050, that will decrease to 50 million. We always think about how to make our company sustainable. One of our approaches is overseas expansion, which we began in 2013. We have been to exhibitions in Indonesia and Chicago, USA. The CE (Conformité Européenne) standard that we acquired assures safety in the European region. We worked on being certified with international standards, so our products now have the CE mark on them. We were able to receive an order from IMAX in Canada. Even NASA uses our winches. The domestic market will shrink so we expanded overseas in 2013 and domestically, we already have 70% market share so we also believe that our products are adequate and competent enough for the international market.
One common response to manage the lack of human labour is embracing digital technology. Your BMW three-phase is a winch that has a radio control series that can operate the product remotely without the presence of the physical operator there. Can you elaborate more on your technological initiatives? What impact have new innovative technologies had on your company?
Control is critical for electric winches. We need to determine how many seconds the winch moves and how many seconds it is stopped. Precise control on the movement of the electric winch is crucial, so we use digital technology for this. For example, we use the inverter to operate the rotating speed of the drum.
Power generation has been a very important topic. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar power have to be very far from urban centres. Some of your winches are being used in wind turbines for wind power generation. Can you tell us more about the role your products are playing in developing Japan's renewable energies? What other environmental and sustainable initiatives have you taken on?
This is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' power generator. From the ground to the nacelle on top is about 100 metres high. There are many components for electric power generation inside the nacelle. Conventionally, a person needs to climb up and make a replacement if there is a malfunction on any of the devices inside. Our contribution to the system is that our winches inside the nacelle help workers carry the tools to replace faulty equipment up 100 metres so that they no longer have to. But of course, the engineers still need to climb up by themselves.
We also contribute funds to WaterAid Japan, which is an active organisation that provides clean water globally where it is not readily accessible. During COVID especially, we are encouraged to wash our hands but, in some countries, they did not have water to do that.
In 2012, we made a CE declaration through TRaC Global in the UK.
Mr. Sugiura of Tesac mentioned that finding local partners in some of the overseas markets in which they operate and combining their expertise was the key to innovation and new opportunities. Looking towards the future, are you looking for new collaborative partners both in Japan and overseas?
We are on good terms with Tesac. Since they make textile ropes, they proposed to do a project together. We want to collaborate with set manufacturers where they can incorporate our winch into their products like lifter companies with the cherry picker.
Since 2016, you have been in Washington State near Seattle. With your desire and ambition to create a more international reach, is there a particular region that you consider key as part of that expansion? What is your international business strategy?
Our primary target is Southeast Asia and now we have distributors in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand. They have an inventory of Maxpull's winches in stock for sale. We targeted Southeast Asia with the assumption that the winch industry will evolve in the near future. The overseas team is now taking an aggressive approach in sales and marketing in European nations like Germany, the UK, France, Spain, and also in the United States and other developed nations. We consider developed nations as our seniors.
Of all the applications that your products have been used for, have you ever had a project that you consider as your favourite application that you have seen for your winches?
At a drone training centre where we must make sure the drone will not fly out of the net. The Japanese police bomb dismantling team was also interesting. They used our winch to move and take the bomb down to freeze it.
Electricity and nuclear power plants must be sorted to cater to all the demands. In Fukushima, there was an earthquake and the roof of the nuclear power plant exploded. The Japanese government wants to pursue nuclear power generation, but accidents like that should never happen again. The experts' analysis showed that it was an excess build-up of vapour within the building that caused the explosion. There is something called a blowout panel. As a countermeasure, blowout panels are placed within the facility to let the vapour out in case of a build-up. We got a request from Hitachi to remove the blowout panel using our winch and we had a project to do testing. The winch is controlled so at a certain point, it will stop automatically. We encountered many difficulties, but this is one of the interesting projects we can remember.
If we come back on your 50th anniversary, what are your dreams for this company and what would you have liked to have achieved by then?
We want to be number one as a niche product manufacturer. We also treasure our Japanese customers who have supported us for almost fifty years. We are very grateful and we want to provide them with better solutions so they can achieve their dreams. As for overseas customers, we would like to be known globally as a brand. We not only want new customers, but we want repeat customers. For example, NASA and IMAX were only one-off clients, but we are hoping they will be return clients. Once they use our products, they will know the quality of Maxpull products. I want to make our employees and their families very happy.