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Super Resin: A pioneer in Fiber Reinforced Plastics (FRP) molding

Interview - January 2, 2024

Its excellence in composite materials and R&D marks Super Resin out as a genuine innovator.

AKIO ASAKURA, PRESIDENT OF SUPER RESIN, INC.
AKIO ASAKURA | PRESIDENT OF SUPER RESIN, INC.

First, could you introduce us to your firm a little bit? What are Super Resin’s core business and competencies? What do you believe are your firm's main advantages that set you apart from your competition?

First I would like to thank you for researching our company so well. 1957 was the year of our establishment and we will be commemorating the 67th anniversary very soon. We have about 140 employees in Japan. We are a manufacturer of composite materials centering around carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) and glass-fiber reinforced plastics (GFRP) through manufacturing, research, and development. Currently, we are a subsidiary of JPH, a group holding company.

We have two factories in Japan, one in Inagi and another in Sagamihara. Our second factory, in Sagamihara, is bigger in size so we can manufacture bigger-sized products. In fact, this year we are celebrating the factory’s 20th anniversary.

In Ningbo China, we also have a factory, this one has been around for 12 years now. Initially, the purpose of having a Chinese factory was to reduce costs and produce products for export to Japan, however, now the situation has changed, and the Chinese factory is now solemnly producing for the Chinese market. We do still have a few exports from China, but for aerospace products particularly, we must produce within Japan. It is only the industrial-related components that we produce in China.

We now have over 60 years of experience, but I think it is interesting that the company began its life producing specialized fiber reinforced plastics (FRP). In fact, CFRP was developed in the 1980s so before then our focus was GFRP. Throughout our history we have tended to produce high-mix-low-volume lots, providing cutting-edge technologies and products to the market.

One of the unique projects that we are proud of was for the previous Osaka Expo in 1970. It was a symbol called The Tower of the Sun where we produced the Face of the Sun, and although it looks like it is made from concrete, it’s in fact made of GFRP. Currently, the company is engaged in numerous aerospace projects. Our business model is B2B mainly, Together with our customers, we actively listen to their demands and initiate R&D activities to address their specific needs and requests. I feel this gives us a competitive edge in the market. Super Resin has two key business pillars; one is to focus on R&D, providing cutting-edge solutions, and the second is manufacturing high-quality items with thorough care.

Composite material is composed of fiber and resin, so our company does have the capability to do resin development. It is another value that we have and something we can offer to our clients. Currently, we have three major business scopes that accommodate about 70% of our business which are industrial machinery, aviation and aerospace, and finally defense which includes radar dome. Within this 70% of our business, each segment represents approximately 33% of that total share.

Super Resin is also involved in level-4 drone development. Additionally, with our strength being in our ability to create monuments like the Tower of the Sun, we are often involved in similar projects. Other things we are involved in include the next power generation. This international project in particular requires a large-sized product. Unfortunately, the name of this project shall remain unsaid due to its confidentiality.

Our company places a strong emphasis on R&D, seamlessly integrating it into our organizational structure to drive innovation and create new products. Additionally, we are equipped with a wide range of measurement devices and advanced equipment, enabling us to achieve precise and accurate development.

 

It is our view that Japan is at a very exciting time for manufacturing. On one hand, we have had major supply chain disruptions in the last three years, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as tension from the China-US decoupling situation. As a result, we are seeing many multinational groups try to diversify their supply chains with a focus on reliability. This is where Japan can enter; a country known for decades of high reliability, trustworthiness, and short lead times when it comes to production. Now, with a depreciated JPY, it is our view that there’s never been a more opportune moment for Japanese manufacturers to meet the pressing needs of this macroeconomic environment. Do you agree with this premise, and why or why not? What are the strengths of Japanese firms that they can leverage in this economic environment?

While our products are custom-made to order, which stands in stark contrast to off-the-shelf products, it's important to note that our business hasn't been able to fully capitalize on the global trend favoring Japanese firms due to the depreciated JPY.

As for the strength of Japanese companies, there are many major firms and SMEs who have global market share but mainly they are component manufacturers in the realm of high-quality end products rather than mass production since mass production products can easily be copied by Chinese companies.

 

You talked about three markets representing 70% of your sales; those being industrial machinery, defense, and aerospace. However, I think there are a number of other very interesting and exciting potential applications that you’ve been exploring like power generation, the automotive sector, and the medical sector. Which of these new applications do you believe to be the most promising for your CFRP and GFRP products?

One key up-and-coming field we are focusing on is the energy field. This is tied with wind power generation and next-generation power generation in particular. When I mention 'next generation,' I'm specifically referring to nuclear fusion. In the context of vehicles, hydrogen tanks emerge as strong candidates for both transportation and energy storage. These tanks would incorporate CFRP, and this is an area where we believe we can make a significant contribution.

As unmanned transportation systems continue to advance, flying cars and drones are poised to grow in size and capabilities. These developments necessitate lightweight materials for their construction, and in such scenarios, CFRP becomes a highly viable choice.

 

Does this extend to autonomous cars as well? From a layman’s point of view, the two main advantages of the materials you provide are the weight reduction and the heat dissipation. These also seem to be the two most pressing challenges that the automotive sector is facing right now with this transition to EVs and autonomous vehicles. Do you see opportunities in this field? How is the transition impacting your business?

Currently, we are engaged in a collaborative R&D effort with an automotive manufacturer, focusing on materials for next-generation vehicles. This project is relatively small in scale, aimed at jointly developing, evaluating, and analyzing materials. Through partnerships like this, our goal is to establish a stronger presence in the next-generation vehicle industry. Additionally, we see promising opportunities in the drone sector. We are currently conducting market research and exploring potential partnerships with companies in this field.

 

You mentioned earlier the two pillars; manufacturing and R&D. What do you believe is the most exciting example of your current R&D processes that you would like to showcase for us today?

In 2011, we established our R&D department, and since then, we've been dedicated to the development of our proprietary resins. At the heart of our innovation lies what we call 'The Epoxy Foam' technology, which enables the creation of exceptionally lightweight resins. What sets this technology apart is its ability to produce thin resins right from the outset, eliminating the need for post-processing such as shaving or grinding to achieve desired thicknesses. This epoxy foam offers the flexibility to shape 3D structures seamlessly during the initial manufacturing phase. Intriguingly, when we combine it in a sandwich structure with CFRP skin and epoxy foam as the core material, we achieve a remarkable balance of extreme lightweight properties, alongside the high rigidity and strength characteristic of CFRP. This combination results in products that are both robust and flexible, allowing us to shape them into various forms, including cylindrical shapes.



We are also excited to introduce our Glycol Lignin-containing Epoxy Resin System, a groundbreaking biodegradable epoxy resin. Glycol lignin, derived from Japan cedar, possesses two noteworthy attributes: it facilitates carbon dioxide absorption during cedar growth and boasts inherent biodegradability. By blending glycol lignin with epoxy resin, we reduce our reliance on oil-derived epoxy resin and facilitate the formation of CFRP while immobilizing carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the biodegradability of Glycol Lignin is a valuable asset in the disposal of CFRP materials.

What sets our Glycol Lignin-containing Epoxy Resin System apart is its ability to seamlessly integrate glycol lignin into CFRP without compromising mechanical properties, ensuring consistent heat resistance. This innovative system is also adaptable, available in the form of our epoxy foam. This flexible material opens up a plethora of solutions for our clients, as it can be bonded with both CFRP and foam materials, allowing for the creation of diverse shapes and forms.

The development of this epoxy system underscores our commitment to transitioning from older products to environmentally friendly, biodegradable alternatives that align with our clients' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

 

In terms of increasing the size of your products, I’m sure it is not as simple as just scaling things up and there are all kinds of complications in terms of the durability and sustainability of the material. What are some of the challenges you run into when trying to enlarge the size of this product?

Expanding the diameter presents several technical challenges. The foremost concern is performing structural calculations to ascertain the requisite strength and rigidity specifications. Achieving the desired levels of strength and rigidity demands meticulous deliberation of material composition. Furthermore, creating a larger-sized mold becomes imperative in this undertaking. These factors collectively underscore the need for technological advancements to facilitate the scaling-up process.

 

This two-pillar approach seems to allow your firm to innovate and produce, side-by-side in tandem. We often hear about the importance of collaboration, especially from SMEs. You mentioned before mostly working with domestic partners, but there have been examples in the past of you working with foreign companies and partners. Is this something you’re interested in pursuing in the future? Are you interested in making connections with foreign SMEs for the sake of R&D or product development?

We’ve developed a biodegradable epoxy resin system. This means that it is environmentally friendly, and this kind of sustainability is essential in the modern world we live in. We are focusing not only on producing products out of this epoxy resin system but also on providing it as a material. In particular, overseas companies are more environmentally conscious so finding an appropriate partner and distribution for the material is crucial to our business. At the same time, our business model dictates that we communicate thoroughly with our customers and present custom-made materials that will solve their issues. We can meet their specific requests, so having a communication channel is important.

 

When you say you are focusing on clients that are more environmentally conscious I think of the EU and North America. What particular markets are you targeting?

We are still in the research phase trying to discover what would be the best application. Through our customers in Europe, we have been distributing leaflets on this material as well as at a recent European exhibition. We’ve had a lot of responses from those leaflets so we are now trying to figure out whether a material provision or a product provision would be better for clients.

 

Would you be interested in licensing the technology?

Yes, that is one of the possibilities we are weighing up at the moment.

 

There are some challenges that come from being such an R&D-centric company; specifically when it comes to human resources. Being able to attract and maintain people who are motivated and curious is a difficult task to accomplish. You said that your firm only has around 140 people operating here in Tokyo, which is at odds with the biggest social challenge in Japan right now, which is the aging and declining population. How are you coping with this challenge and maintaining your dedicated R&D team?

For recruitment, we are taking active steps in branding, spreading, and promoting our companies. We look to employ the appropriate media and promotional channels to appeal to new graduates. Additionally, we look to actively take part in interviews for media companies to showcase our firm. As well as going to universities directly to hire new graduates is another approach we have been taking. This resulted in the hiring of two new engineers last year.

Aging engineers in our company is one of the challenges we are facing, and the firm understands that it is important to transfer that knowledge and maintain it with the younger generation. We do this by creating manuals and videos that have specific guidelines, all to make sure that this valuable knowledge isn’t lost to the sands of time. There may be a decrease in the number of overall engineers in our company but honestly, our business model isn’t for mass production, but rather custom-made one-and-only products for our clients. We would like to continue to maintain a high level of quality for our customers.

 

Imagine that we come back in four years, in the year 2027, and have this interview all over again. What goals or dreams do you hope to achieve by the time we come back for that new interview?

My vision is firmly focused on our 100th anniversary in 2057. While our 70th anniversary in 2027 marks a significant milestone, I view it as a stepping stone. Over the next decade, our company's ambitious target is to achieve an annual turnover of JPY 10 billion. In the coming four years, we aim to make substantial progress toward realizing this goal.

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