A company boasting 70 years of experience and an ever expanding international presence, the Kawasaki-based switch manufacturer goes the extra mile to ensure its products are of the highest quality, as explained by president Tomoshige Ohashi, who says that key to NKK’s commitment to quality is the rigorous testing its products undergo.
The Japanese monozukuri philosophy is characterised by attention to detail and a strong culture of craftsmanship. It is also centred on responding to market demands and providing added value to final products. In your view, what is the essence of monozukuri?
My father established this company in 1951, right after the Second World War. This wasn’t a good period for Japan, as the nation was devastated by the conflict. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine that Japan was in such a bad condition, but it was a difficult time for everybody. My father’s idea was to change the country and introduce quality through switches. In the post-war period, the quality was nowhere near what it is today. He graduated from university and began working for another switch manufacturing company, when he realised that switches were simply not good enough at the time. His intuition was to introduce his own, better switches that would showcase Japanese quality. This led him to establish the company.
We believe that this philosophy has run throughout NKK Switches’ entire history, and even today, we still share the same philosophy. Since the beginning, we have adopted three guiding principles: improving quality, ensuring safety and reliability, and creating functional switches. These are our company’s foundations.
Our time-tested formulae, technical know-how and quality results in monozukuri are well established, but it is important to go beyond that. Who is responsible for introducing technology and quality? We have embraced the principles of hitozukuri, rather than monozukuri, which is quality born from people’s hands. If our technicians and engineers operate the equipment properly, it allows us to reach high quality monozukuri.
Japan’s population is ageing and shrinking rapidly: one in three Japanese people will be over the age of 65 by 2035. How is this impacting you? Will you increasingly try to sell your switches overseas to offset shrinking domestic demand?
We believe that this isn’t a big problem for us because our group, NKK Switch Group, has already expanded to many regions and countries, including America and China, some of which have a huge population density that is increasing year-on-year. Of course, there are problems here in Japan related to ageing, and it will be more problematic for us to hire new staff in the future. From a recruitment standpoint, it will be troublesome, but we can stabilise the situation by balancing it with foreign workers. In fact, it is easy to recruit overseas personnel. In the long run, even if we expand further overseas, it is very important to share our company’s DNA when we introduce hitozukuri or human capital abroad. These principles aren’t restricted to one nationality; what matters is that workers share our company’s values. If so, we will be fine in the future.
Your products include toggle switches, pushbutton switches, rocker switches and programmable switches, among others. What type of switch best represents the NKK brand, and what is your best selling product?
We have many product line-ups and there are many switches that we can introduce, so there are two ways I can answer your question: the first is in terms of sales volume; toggle switches and pushbuttons stand out here because they are conventional for many industries. The second is from a sales perspective, as in the type of switches that are sold the most. Needless to say, there are many other switch manufacturers who can make similar types of switches, which makes it challenging to differentiate our products and come up with something outstanding. For this reason, NKK needs to go to regions where none of the other switch manufacturers are going. We are now contributing to the development of OLED and LCD switches, which are multi-functional composite switches. The switches have display units, such as liquid crystal displays, and are a unique product because none of our competitors are able to make them, which allows us to stand out from the competition.
This means that we can create any type of switch based on our customers’ demands. Because of the company’s flexibility and strengths, such as its reliability, customers know that NKK can create complex and sophisticated switches. Most profits and sales come from conventional switches, toggle switches and pushbuttons, but beyond that, we want to illustrate what we are capable of.
Industry is almost fully automated, as the diffusion of LCD screens demonstrates. In such an age, what is the role of conventional switches such as toggle switches and pushbuttons?
The whole industry is changing with the introduction of multi-functional LEDs and LCDs, which are replacing toggle switches and traditional pushbuttons. However, we shouldn’t forget about emerging countries, which are still catching up with developing ones, and where demand for conventional switches and buttons is huge. In addition, companies that are slow in adopting new technologies still request these products. There is still a market for them, and we are strong in it.
Even in Japan, many companies are discontinuing old product lines and introducing new ones. When they do this, they need conventional switches. And in terms of foreign countries, we constantly receive requests for our products from China, America, and Europe.
One of the biggest impediments to switches’ correct functioning are environmental factors, such as heat, dust, and water, and you have developed products that can withstand these elements. Can you tell us about your testing process to create products that can be used in a variety of environments?
Filling out the specs before designing and releasing a product to the market is important. Several trials are conducted, such as testing electrical conductivity to see if the switch can perform its functions. When we check the spec according to the manufacturing process, we assess 30,000 to 40,000 switch functions to test durability. However, we double the amount when it comes to on and off switching just to make sure that the product is reliable enough and the quality is good enough for the customer.
Depending on the country, there are certain standards and rules that need to be respected, however, we always make sure to go the extra mile. For example, a pushbutton test may require that the button be pushed at least one million times. Most companies meet the minimum criteria required to pass the test, but we aren’t satisfied with the bare minimum and go beyond that, conducting extra tests on the buttons from all angles.
R&D is crucial for you to cater your switches to the markets you provide for. How do you adapt your products to clients’ needs, and could you elaborate on recent products that you have released?
The IS series OLED LCD switch has a liquid crystal display module and is a multifunctional pushbutton switch that allows the user to control the display. We are now focusing our development on this product, which has won the Good Design Award. OLED is embedded into the switch top and the switch can also be programmed with multiple functions, rather than just a conventional on and off function. The background to this product’s development is that in the 1990s we were contacted by Reuters news agency, who asked us to develop an exchange dealing device, which were dial-up phones at the time. A multifunctional button was installed on the device so the user only had to push one button to connect.
IS series OLED LCD switches
In addition, a well-known Japanese company that makes audio broadcasting devices utilising some of our switches and we have partnered with this company to take the product to foreign markets. The audio broadcasting industry is a major focus for us now. Reuters used to be good for us in the 1990s and we worked with them for over a decade, but the way we communicate has changed – people are no longer pushing buttons. Because of that, we are switching our focus to audio broadcasting. Our collaboration with our Japanese partner has been a success because our switches are used in their final product, but we still want to aim higher. We have to market ourselves, our vision and our technologies to work with other companies. We made our name through our sales results with the Japanese company because their audio switcher is a high-end product, which puts our company in a positive light. Overall, we are continuing to adapt to keep up with customers’ demands.
When it comes to train door switches, these need to be highly functional. Passengers usually push buttons with their hands, but they sometimes use umbrellas or other objects instead, so we have to make sure the buttons can handle different levels of pressures. When developing these buttons, we adopt a universal design approach. For example, we need to be aware of people who are colour-blind or have disabilities that would hamper their ability to use the buttons.
Train door switch
You have been in the United States since 1970. You have been in Frankfurt, Germany, since 2010, Shanghai, China since 2012, and more recently, you established your second overseas factory, in the Philippines. What products are you looking to push in overseas markets, and what is your strategy for continued overseas expansion?
The US is a highly multicultural society, and many residents can’t speak English. For that reason, it is better to show something through images, rather than words. So, in the Wendy’s hamburger chain, which is originally from the US but can also be found in Japan, we introduced push buttons that display pictures of the items on the menu, therefore avoiding any miscommunication.
The difference between Japan and the US is that Japanese companies tend to segment the market and focus on one product. For example, if our switches, such as the IS series, are introduced into audio broadcasting systems, there is little flexibility in changing their applications. Conversely, America is very flexible; if you succeed in one area, it opens the door for opportunities in other fields. You have many options there simply by establishing your brand.
We don’t target specific countries, but rather prefer to expand the NKK brand across the globe. When I became president in 2003, only 10 percent of our sales came from overseas, and this has now grown to almost 50 percent. We became global in such a short period of time and are continuing to do so by constantly introducing our switches to new markets. Our current target is for overseas sales to reach 70 percent of our total revenue. We recently announced the establishment of a new company in Frankfurt and, overall, we are adopting a “four continents” strategy based on the core concept of linking together areas in Asia, North and South America, and Europe where many of our overseas facilities are located.
Imagine we come back in five years’ time for NKK Switches’ 75th anniversary and interview you again. What dreams or goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
We have 70 years of history as a switch supplier to many industries. It has been relatively simple to produce and procure switches for our customers, however, we needed to evolve from monozukuri to kotozukuri, which means “introducing action”’. We are trying to shift our philosophy from just product manufacturing to becoming a solutions provider. It is very important to remain aligned with customers and hear their thoughts and opinions on our products, and how they are utilising them. This transition is already occurring, and hopefully it will be complete within the next five years.