Starlite is a company committed to working toward the creation of systems that do not place an excessive burden on the planet by deepening its understanding of usability and continuously improving products for more sustainable use.
As a technology development-oriented manufacturer, what does monozukuri mean for you? What are the strengths of your company that allow it to compete in the global marketplace?
The key characteristic of our company is that we can cover the end-to-end process. When I talk about the end-to-end process, I mean from development all the way to after-sales services. Some companies focus on a single segment of this process, for example, one company may develop a product, but for the sales, they may use a vendor instead. In many cases after-sales services are also handled by someone else. Our policy is to cover everything from beginning to end. I think that is the fundamental aspect of monozukuri, our company, and something many other Japanese companies practice too. We have deep knowledge of the entire process from beginning to end. Let’s say for example after a sale, our after-sales department receives a request from a client asking for more in-depth information. Information can be shared by our different departments to best satisfy the needs of that customer. It creates a situation where customers develop a long-term relationship with us. When you talk about the strengths of Starlite, it could be said that it is our materials, products, or even manufacturing methods. However, for me, it's people that are our greatest strength. Ultimately monozukuri is done by people. Some part of the process of course may be automated, but the core origin of Japanese quality comes from the people that have a passion for manufacturing. I feel this results in a sense of appreciation from the end-user. This kind of connection is vitally important. Equally important is to have connections with people that are dedicated to bringing about such monozukuri. It is how we maintain great long-term relationships with our clients. Of course, some parts of manufacturing have been rationalized for mass production, but without human relationships and connections, Japanese monozukuri will not grow.
As an example let's look at this desk I’m sitting at. I know who made this desk, same for the lights. I know who designed and provided this furniture. For everything I use, I know what company is contributing and involved in the manufacturing process. It’s important to know these things in order to understand the connection and passion that is involved in a project. In its essence monozukuri is to know who is involved. This is a fundamental principle of our business.
Can you tell us more about how the CASE era has impacted the automotive sector of your business? What strategies are you undertaking to capitalize on shifting market demand?
You are right that the automotive industry is facing a huge change right now, moving towards electrification. I think there are two key points here. First, we must pursue a new way of enhancing the efficiency of cars, and not just focusing on our existing products. Since 2009, we started a technology alliance with the Röchling Group and developed various products, one example being the active grille shutter (AGS), which manages aerodynamics and thermal system. We would like to further expand this original technology of theirs into the Japanese market. We are also working on reducing the weight of a lot of our components. We believe that there is room to develop components that use lightweight plastics rather than heavy metals such as steel. In particular, we see plastics as being useful in battery production, as a way of dispensing and solving heat issues. As the industry trends toward electrification, it, in turn, brings up new problems such as pulse waves and noise. We would like to find solutions to these new problems with plastics.
In addition to new types of vehicles, we also want to address the social challenges that existing cars present. If we look at the broader perspective, cars powered by gasoline have a huge environmental burden. We cannot continue this lifestyle forever, and honestly, the automotive industry has not done enough to tackle this issue yet. We must face up to this challenge as an industry. We are working hard in our Mobility Solutions Department and the Safety & Life Support Department so that we can extend the life cycle of cars. The current mindset of the automotive industry is to encourage consumers to purchase a new model whenever it is released. I feel a shift in this mindset is required, towards extending the longevity of cars. Our company must think about how we can contribute to this changing this mindset. One such project we have set up tackles motor disasters. I also think of the climate change our planet is currently experiencing. Our standards of living are in a constant state of change, and our perception of a car being thrown away needs to change. The role of any vehicle needs to transform with the times. For example, with the rise of EVs, vehicles can not only provide transportation, but also emergency power.
How is Starlite contributing to sustainable manufacturing? Was sustainability the motivation to develop your fiber high-temperature (TT) resistant products?
When it comes to sustainability, we plan on moving into bioplastics and advancing recycling technology. As an example, when you recycle materials, the quality decreases. We have been looking into the adjustment of temperatures used to melt materials for recycling. We are working very hard with our research and development department to achieve a circular economy. We have actually started collecting the used industrial helmets that we started selling in the 1950s and finding ways to reuse and recycle them. When you talk about sustainability, many people automatically jump to recycling. However, I feel it’s important to keep using existing things too, to find new uses for them.
The TT material you mentioned is another good example. It was developed as per a request from a client. In our tribology department, we put great importance on friction characteristics and heat resistance. This client requested the ability to increase the lifespan of their components whilst also reducing operation costs. If you look at traditional friction material, the surface is easily worn out, but the base remains fresh. However, even in that case you still have to replace the entire material. We set to work on a way to reuse that base and worked with the client on a solution. As we described in our description of monozukuri we feel it's important to cover this solution as a process all the way through. By doing so we can catch problems that the end-user has and put those forward as new developments. That for us was the driving motivation to develop this new and sustainable material.
In regards to our eMET, that project came from facing up to the challenges presented by natural disasters and factory operations. A lot of workers suffer from heatstroke these days. Some operators are not able to take a break when needed. The product and service were made to save this kind of people as well as to prompt a timing for a break for the operators and their leaders. The same applies for our portable toilet, Quick House. In evacuation centers after natural disasters, many people refrain from drinking in order to avoid going to the toilet, which makes them feel ill. This product was created to help these people and to improve the sanitary condition of evacuation centers as much as possible.
I am glad you mentioned the eMET, this digital service to manage the physical condition of workers in all kinds of industrial environments, such as construction sites, factories and manufacturing sites. Can you tell me more about the eMET? Is the eMET service calibrated to support foreign companies as well?
One thing we are particularly focused on is we do not just simply sell products. We use real user data to propose possible improvements for the site and contribute to the realization of more operator-friendly working environments. This can be said for our wearable devices such as the eMET. The management of the health of factory workers creates a real demand for this kind of product. There are a lot of competitors in the wearable devices market, however, we feel that many of them simply do not put in as much effort as us in the after-sales activity. In general, they tend to give a one-year warranty and that's about it. Let’s say for example we were to develop a new wearable device to assist workers on a construction site. We would make sure a representative was present on the site during the development phase, wore the actual product, and heard user voices to assess the needs of the client. We would then work together to incorporate their requests and feedback into development, leading to the product that is easy for users to wear. We continue to provide after-sales services in order to keep hearing customer voices. We strongly believe that this kind of connection and collaboration is a key to realize user-friendly working environments.
We have yet to apply it to foreign markets, however, when working on new developments, we are keeping an eye on what is happening in overseas markets and seeing what value we can provide via our products and services. In addition, we are trying to communicate our message to the overseas markets. Unfortunately bringing a product like eMET to launch overseas isn’t a simple procedure. There are plenty of laws and restrictions that we must navigate. In addition, when bringing a product to another market, just changing the language is not enough. Every country has its own needs, demands, and regulations. First, I think we need to set up a network where we can go out and do field testing for this device overseas, and if there is a need, we would be willing to take on the challenge.
We know that you have a long history of collaborative relationships, especially overseas. Are you actively looking for new international collaboration or partnership opportunities?
It is important to think about what we are currently focusing on and who would it benefit to collaborate with in order to achieve that current focus. We are always looking for partners to help tackle the challenges that society faces in this modern age. For this, we need to look for partners from all across the globe. Limiting our partnerships to Japan only would be detrimental. Within our business, I like to think that our Tribology and Mobility Solutions departments are fairly globalized, however the same cannot be said for our Safety and Life Support department. The challenge now is how to globalize our other division. In any case, it is important to clarify what challenge or what social issue we are looking into. The answer to this will point us in the right direction for the collaboration we are looking for.
Could you elaborate more on your strategy when it comes to further developing your overseas safety business?
In terms of infrastructure, we would like to have real offices so that we can be directly involved in foreign markets. In China, we have a location in Shanghai, and in Thailand, we have a location near Bangkok. For these locations, we can directly manage and address the market. However, when tackling other markets in Asia we really need partners that have well-established roots to meet local needs. It is especially important in our business in safety and life support.
Imagine we conduct this interview again in four years, what dreams or goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
I would love to say by then that our business model has become one that not only simply pursues convenience and comfort, but tackling social issues head-on and creates the functionality and value that are really needed by people to solve the real social problems of the world. I would like to hope that in four years, I will be able to share with you more specific results that have been produced and the scene that outcomes have improved our society.