YUEI is a leading manufacturer of casters, integrating original techniques into products which simplify the labor of diverse global corporations. A stalwart of the Japanese caster industry with 45 years of experience, YUEI continues to go from strength to strength. The secret, according to company president, Kota Ojima, is simple: “We respond to each and every one of our customers’ requests and have a deep understanding of their needs.” Mr. Ojima explains more about the company and its unique casters in this interview with the Worldfolio, revealing that his plan is for YUEI to become the number one caster manufacturer in the world.
What are the strengths of your firm that allow you to be competitive in the international market?
We started manufacturing casters 45 years ago. This year marks the 46th year. However, we are not that old in the Japanese caster industry. We are the latest company among many caster makers. When we first started manufacturing casters, we set a goal of occupying 10% of the domestic market share in order to survive in this market. I thought that if I could achieve this, I would become an indispensable caster maker in this market.
Originally, there were many leading caster makers in the market, so it was difficult to find customers for our products. However, as we began to communicate with customers and listened to their requests, we realized that customers often did not buy the casters they really wanted. Many of our competitors just show their catalogs, from which customers had no choice but to choose even if it’s not the one truly they want. Some customers were looking for other casters. We were able to expand the market by responding to each and every one of these customers' requests, as none of our competitors were willing to do small lots of bespoke products.
You asked what monozukuri means for our company. I would say that our strength is that we are able to provide products that meet the needs of our customers. We have a deep understanding of our customers' needs and have provided bespoke casters. We believe that is our competitive advantage in the current market.
At YUEI, we are working to improve our in-house production system. We are increasing the in-house production rate in order to respond to the various needs of our customers in detail. I think this is also our competitive advantage that other companies do not have.
What challenges or opportunities has Japan’s demographic situation posed for your firm?
As society ages, we are facing labor shortages. In particular, the working population of the manufacturing industry is decreasing. In the past, there were many applicants for recruitment activities, but now that is not the case. This is a major issue facing the field of manufacturing, and I think that many companies are facing the challenge of hiring new human resources.
Under these circumstances, we are not only strengthening the recruitment of new employees, but also working to automate operations. Ideally, the entire manufacturing process should be fully automated, which is not possible with more than 8,000 casters currently manufactured. Therefore, instead of fully automating, we are looking at ways to reduce the number of workers required for one process to one-third. To achieve this, we have continued to consider more efficient methods, such as introducing new equipment.
If the automation and efficiency of the production line proceeded forward, some engineers would become unnecessary. What are your thoughts?
As I mentioned earlier, we have continued to improve work efficiency in various ways in order to achieve labor savings. But no one is unnecessary in the process.
For example, if we have 5 different production lines and each line requires 3 engineers, we need a total of 15 engineers. I mentioned earlier that we would like to reduce the number of workers to one-third in the future, but that does not eliminate the need for 10 engineers. Because we will continue to increase production lines, they are indispensable in various operations.
We would like to talk about the new products, Ultimate Urethane Caster, which is ideal for transporting heavy goods. You mentioned that one of your company's main strengths is to provide products that solve customer’s problems. What is the problem you are trying to solve with this new Ultimate Urethane Caster?
The reason for developing this product was a request from a customer in the construction industry who wanted to reduce the burden on workers. In the construction industry, casters are attached to and moved to scaffolding. Since such scaffolding is very heavy, there was a desire to move it with a lighter force.
By attaching the new Ultimate Urethane Caster to the scaffold, it is now possible for only two people to move the scaffold, which was previously moved by five people. This product is currently used primarily in the construction and automotive industries. It is very difficult to push heavy objects of one tonne and above, so we hope that Ultimate Urethane Caster will help reduce the load in transporting heavy objects and improve the working environment.
Your company seems to offer a lot of interesting techniques to solve your problems. For example, Heavystar has a high load capacity that can withstand heavy loads, Smoostar protects the goods from shocks and vibrations during transportation. Are there any new technologies or products currently under development?
One of the products currently under development is a caster equipped with an IoT sensor. It is a battery-less sensor device that uses the technology to generate electricity by rotating the casters and does not require wiring or battery replacement.
With this caster, you can acquire data such as mileage, running speed, and location information. For example, in airports, carts are everywhere and the people working there need to gather them. With this system, you can grasp the approximate area of the cart and it will be easier to collect the cart.
The development of this product started with the idea that it would be interesting to generate electricity with casters. For example, in a hospital, a nurse may push a cart during a night round.
At this time, I had the idea that the cart can be safely moved even in the dark if the light is turned on by the power generation of the casters. And also I had the idea to install the power generation in the children's cart at the shopping mall. It can play music that makes children happy. Based on these, our development team developed casters with IoT sensors and realized the acquisition of mileage and location information. Currently, it is sold only in Japan, but we would like more customers to know about it.
You first established its base in China in 2002 and expanded to Vietnam in 2018. Are there any regions or markets that will be key to your future development strategy?
In 2000, many Japanese companies built factories in China. One of our clients also built a factory there. They said they would look for a new caster supplier in China if we couldn't build a factory in China. That was the beginning of our expansion into China. But relying solely on that client would not have been possible to scale the factory.
At that time, some of the caster parts manufactured in Japan were procured from overseas. However, in the wake of the expansion into China, instead of continuing to procure from overseas, we decided to manufacture at our own Chinese factory at a lower cost.
By doing so, it became possible to manufacture Japanese quality parts while keeping costs down. In the future, the Chinese factory will not only manufacture parts for the Japanese factory, but also manufacture and provide products for the Chinese market according to Japanese quality standards.
The Vietnam factory does not currently produce casters. They produce mesh pallets in both the Japanese market and the Vietnamese domestic market. However, so far only half of the space of the Vietnam factory is used. In the future, we would like to produce casters at our Vietnam factory so that we can expand caster sales in Southeast Asia.
We are not thinking of expanding to other regions, but rather we would like to focus more on our factories in China and Vietnam. If we cannot meet the demand at our three factories in Japan, Saitama, Nara and Fukuoka, we would like to expand our factories to Vietnam and China. I am a very cautious person, so if I find a partner I can truly trust, I would like to expand into new areas.
This year your company is celebrating its 45th year anniversary. Imagine we had this interview again five years from now, for your 50th anniversary. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company and what goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
Our first milestone was to gain 10% of the domestic caster market. If we look at the entire Japanese market for casters, the market size is about JPY 30 billion, so achieving a 10% share was a significant milestone. The next step was to become the top caster maker in the domestic market. We also achieved this as our sales exceeded the top market share, which at that time was around JPY 7 billion. The third step, which we are currently working towards, is for our sales to reach JPY 10 billion. The final milestone is to become the number one caster maker in the global market. This is a big jump from the third step, but that is our ultimate goal. I am not sure how long this will take, but this is what we want to achieve.