Playing a hidden but indispensable role behind the scenes, Moripax aims to change the future of logistics through its innovation, while also becoming a key supporter of a sustainable circular economy.
Could you start by telling us a little about Moripax? What are your company’s core competencies, and what are some key milestones in your company’s history?
There are actually two companies under our umbrella; Moripax and Morioka, with Morioka being established in 1959, and Moripax starting back in 1979. Moripax is a trading company whereas Morioka is a manufacturing company. A core strength of our company is the total packaging we offer to our clients, as well as the design and plans we can create for clients in our Technovation Center.
To consolidate our Monozukuri competencies, we opened a Technical Center in 2004. Yet, since the requirements of products are getting more sophisticated and advanced, we needed to strengthen our R&D functions and this led to the concept of the Technovation Center which has been built in 2021. Building the Technovation Center is one of the key milestones during the last couple of years, but the sudden loss of my father, who was the former president, in 2019 was also the biggest turning point of our history, as I became president.
The Technovation Center is the core site for our Monozukuri where all key functions for one-stop Monozukuri are gathered (planning, design, mock-ups, mass-production prototype, QA). Before having this site in 2021, these functions were scattered in different factories, causing longer lead times, information was misled and quality was not stable, along with other effects.
We start with drawing and reviewing a design to proceed to make a prototype that fits the customers' specifications. It is sent to the customer for evaluation and based on the feedback, we can make adjustments. Once a customer approves a prototype, we can then move on to mass production. Quality Assurance (QA) follows, and then finally we can deliver the product to the end users. As you can see, our group can offer a one-stop shop for packaging needs. That is why I said, “total packaging,” is our core strength.
Some companies require specialized solutions, and while they may have mass production capabilities, they may lack the key design features our company has. We can simply accommodate and challenge it all. In addition to our mass production, we do have outsourcing partners and that can only come about thanks to our long history. If it is a product that is too complicated for even our production capabilities, we have partners whom we can rely on to produce for us. Those partners contribute to our strength too, and I think we have many nakama (comrades).
After Moripax was established in 1979, we expanded our facilities, including a Technical Center in 2004. The Hong Kong office opened in 1994 and we started manufacturing in China’s Shenzhen region in 1996, but now we are in Huizhou. We entered Thailand in 2012 but exited in 2022 during COVID-pandemic. We now only have overseas facilities in Hong Kong and China, but we do have overseas partners in different countries, mainly in ASEAN countries; we have more nakama (comrades) not only in Japan.
Your company specializes in thermo-forming and there are many different molding techniques. Can you tell us why you chose thermo-forming as your main method? Could you give us some of the advantages of thermo-forming over some of the other techniques?
When the company started in 1959, we did not do any thermo-forming, instead, we did an assembly for stamps and stationery. About 15 years later, our customers realized that they needed packaging and they asked us if we could do it. During those 15 years that the company focused on assembly, we repeatedly received queries for packaging, so the question became, “How do we do that?”. My grandfather went on a search looking for how to produce the packaging needed by their customers. Thermo-forming became the key to making the kind of packaging required. At that point, we were one of the pioneers of challenging thermo-forming method.
The Moripax you know today started at this point in 1979, and we thought that if we could train our techniques for thermo-forming then perhaps we could expand into other fields beyond pure packaging. My father saw an opportunity to expand to other industries. Now we have applications for our technology in the automotive, medical, and even the semiconductor industry.
What are the basic steps for thermo-forming?
First of all, we set the mold and plastic sheet material such as PS (polystyrene), PP (polypropylene) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) to the thermo-forming machine. After heating up the sheet material, the sheet will be along the mold and cool down to solidify at the same time of vacuuming. After these steps, we press-cut them into pieces. Thermo-forming, as you know, is a huge industrial sector, yet niche at the same time, especially for an industrial use. It is essential, yet there are many different players with specific needs and applications.
There are differences between the materials we handle. Each material such as PET, PS and PP have features on flexibility, cost advantage, conductivity and formability. We choose the best suited material for customer's requirement and also even develop the unique material for specific use.
These days we are seeing the demands from various industries increase, and the requirements are becoming stricter. There is a big need for plastic trays that have zero contaminants. We can utilize several different base materials to make the products that best suit the client’s needs. Our production areas are kept clean and the environment is controlled to prevent contamination. In addition, as requirements are getting higher, we prepare a lot of inspection devices to ensure the quality meets the customers’ requirements. Things we need to check include containments, the products’ shape, and their performance etc.
How long did it take you to develop this original line?
Composing and unifying this line did not take that much time, however, before developing the line, we spent a great deal of time trying out different things. It is difficult to unify our entire product lineup into one production line. Sometimes we need to change the molds many times to accommodate different products. The very idea of designing the production line comes from our accumulated experience of high-mix, low-volume production.
Designing own production line also helps the efficient allocation of manpower resources. As you have alluded to earlier, Japan is at a crisis point when it comes to the population, so we have found that we have needed to reduce the manpower to operate the production line. Whereas in the past we have had one person for each machine, now we would ideally like to drop that to one person for multiple machines and also to look after the surrounding production process.
Is there a specific industry you are currently focusing on? Are there any new industries you would like to introduce your products to?
We are not looking to expand right now, rather we are looking to protect the industries we are in first. The market requirements are going up and up, and luckily we have a wide range of customers from different industries, all of which have different requirements. The requirements are so much higher these days, so it means there is a need to level up our company itself. Of course, I would love to try out different industries, but before we do that, we must ensure that we are doing the best we can for our existing customer base. When our capabilities are better, then, and only then, will we look to expand into new fields and applications. However, we always seek for the possibilities of new challenge.
During the pandemic, we saw massive disruptions to global logistics and shipping. A crucial part of those was China’s zero-COVID policy, and we saw mass lockdowns across the country’s urban areas, with many companies seeing severe disruptions to their supply chains. As a firm with bases in China, what impact did this zero-COVID policy have on your business?
When China's Zero-COVID policy was announced, we were also facing a big problem as we have a Chinese factory. It meant that we had to halt production completely. Shipping from China was also impossible at that time and that had a devastating effect. To make matters worse, shipping by ocean freight was also halted due to the Russia-Ukraine situation. We had no choice but to use air cargo at some point. Still to this day, maritime routes of containers are not perfectly back to normal, yet, it is starting to get better and we are optimistic that things will return to normal shortly.
Malaysia was a particular problem during the pandemic as the country was forced into lockdown for a long period. One time we released a container from Japan heading for Malaysia, but because of the lockdown, the country would not accept it. That freight was at sea for a long time. The team in Malaysia said that they could see the container from their windows, but could not take it in. It is funny to think about it now, but at that time it was a real nightmare.
Could you guide us through some of your products that you are particularly proud of or any products that you feel demonstrate Moripax’s core strengths?
We have developed so many packaging products and industrial trays over the years, from automotive to consumer-side packaging. There are similarities between those two applications surprisingly. You might be used to seeing packaging for hot food in a convenience store, and the material is similar, however, the differences come from the specifications. Obviously, with automotive applications, their specifications are more demanding so we need specific partners to work together to meet their needs.
Your products are primarily plastic, a material that is very well known for creating pollution. What are some of the activities Moripax is doing to ensure that your products are more sustainable?
Yes, I would like to elaborate on that because it has been a big challenge. Of course, plastic things are still needed, so we have tried to emphasize to our customers that our products can be reused again more than once. Customers have also asked us to pick up used trays to make trays again rather than throw them away. It is similar to what is done with PET bottles. We have tried to build this eco-circular system with our stakeholders because it is something we cannot achieve alone. Through collaboration, we affiliate with companies so we can achieve this goal together.
To be honest, the company is blessed to have such long-lasting relationships with our valued affiliate companies, and through these relationships, we can work together to reach a common goal; addressing the problem with plastic. While we understand that plastic is a huge issue for the planet, still customers ask for plastic products, so as a company, we try to do what we can to challenge this issue. If we are passionate about this issue alone, it simply does not work, we are just one company. However, if we work together, anything is possible.
Are you looking for any more affiliated companies or partnerships, whether that be domestically or overseas?
We need more. That is the simple answer. We have our factory here in Aichi, but our customers are all over Japan. The downside is that we do not have factories all over. Of course, we have our competitors, but in my opinion, at some point, we need to shake hands and approach partnerships so that both companies can continue to grow. It is the same overseas, and now we have partners in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam in locations where we don’t have our own factories. When we started R&D in Japan, our customers wanted to do mass production in other countries, and now that we have local partnerships, we can now support those customers with their activities overseas. When I refer to a local partner, this includes those throughout Japan as well as overseas
You have recently opened your Technovation Center. How has this facility elevated your R&D capabilities?
Well, one side covers what we talked about earlier with our commitment to SDGs. As we have so many customers oftentimes, we accept any request, whether that be for thermo-forming or not. For example, imagine that a customer asks for an item that is not necessarily related to thermo-forming, but our R&D team is keen to pursue it, and then we will take on the challenge. Throughout the company’s history, we have taken on such challenges, and even if at times it has felt too difficult, our customers have kept giving us a chance. That is why we started to draw a grand design of the new facility, after known as Technovation Center, where we can gather information and techniques of our Monozukuri. It has become so valuable as a place to talk, discuss, and innovate. It was for this reason that I decided to build this new facility rather than just another big factory.
Is there anything that your R&D team is working on that you would like to showcase today?
Not really, because when we develop products and bring them to market, those launches are most of the time hidden. We do not produce too many consumer-side products. I will say that a new area for us relates to the aging population and we are looking to develop products that support the elderly. The products are based on nursing and caretaking.
We interview a lot of companies in the Monozukuri space, and more than 90% of the CEOs of these companies are men. What have been some of the challenges you have faced as a female president of a company related to Monozukuri?
I have no doubt that is true, and I would even go on to say that the percentage might be even higher. A big turning point in my life was when I lost my father three years ago in 2019, and before that, I had worked at the Morioka Group for 10 years. I joined the company in 2010 and I am the oldest of three daughters my father had.
When my father, unfortunately, passed away, there was a need for someone to fill his role and lead the company. Otherwise, the company might freefall. His passing was sudden, and he was healthy until he died. The choice was clear, and only I could take that role, and that is because I worked so closely with him and I knew what I had to do to keep the company stable. I saw how passionate my father was and I saw how much he loved this company. I tried to bring his thoughts, ideas, and passions to my way of leading the company. I wish I could be working closely with him for longer, but the flow of time is sometimes cruel.
When we bought the land for the Technovation Center, he was alive, and this idea of a new facility for innovation and the next generation was his grand design. We lost him, however, so as his daughter, I wanted to be the one that brought his dream into reality. Needless to say, that was a tough time for me both professionally and personally.
As I am female, I can see the business from another point of view, and I think that is a big advantage over other Monozukuri companies because we can combine both views. Diversity is always a good thing, and there are some things that men might overlook, but I can spot them. Looking into Monozukuri from a female point of view might be a unique advantage.
Imagine that we come back in four years and have this interview all over again: what goals would you like to have achieved by then?
One goal I have mentioned today is to level up our business. I think we need to gain more skills and knowledge in the thermo-forming area, and it will only benefit the company more and makes it stronger. I have to find ways to push our employees and motivate them. During my father’s era, he knew everything there was to know about the business, so our employees could follow him, but now there are managers in the company that have better technical knowledge than me. I need the support of those around me, so this upskilling also applies to me too. This kind of continual improvement structure is going to enable us all at Moripax to be prouder of what we are doing.
To do this, escaping from the personalization of the work and standardization is required. We want to see if we can bring in new people and have the technical knowledge and know-how of our more experienced staff passed to those recruits. Human resources are a must, and the passing of the torch is the key to sustainable human resources. When you lose an employee with technical expertise to old age it is a big blow. That is why there is a need to pass this expertise to the next generation. Visualizing tasks and workloads are difficult but a crucial starting point for scaling-up human resources. To conclude, strengthening our human resources is one of my goals that I aim to achieve over the coming years.
Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Ana Ruiz