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The bolts and nuts of industry

Interview - August 22, 2022

The industrial bolts and nuts made by Takenaka Seisakusho hold in place the backbone of Japan’s physical and social infrastructure.

SAEKO TAKENAKA, PRESIDENT OF TAKENAKA SEISAKUSHO CO., LTD.
SAEKO TAKENAKA | PRESIDENT OF TAKENAKA SEISAKUSHO CO., LTD.

Traditionally Japanese monozukuri has been a relentless quest for perfection through the kaizen philosophy of product development, but in today’s climate Japanese firms have had to go beyond this and respond to varying market demands. In the case of your company, you have a rich history in value added bolt manufacturing. Could you give us your take on the advantages of Japanese monozukuri?

Speaking about nuts and bolts, there are many specifications, such as JIS, ASTM, or DIN and the strength or shape of all bolts are specified by those standards. If you know about those specifications, you can make nuts and bolts. Anyone can do so, but, importantly, if you only just follow those standards strictly you will not be chosen by customers. In order to be chosen by customers, you need to add value to your products, and we are more or less focusing on that aspect. When it comes to adding value to our products, we are pursuing those aspects that will provide advantages for our customers. One of those advantages we pursued is the TAKECOAT®-1000. You may know already that bolts are made of metals and destined to rust, so what we wanted to do with this product was to prolong the life of the metal and extend the time before it started rusting. It was one of the problems that our clients brought forward to us. We are here to solve those problems using our technologies and products. That is our will to manufacture our products.                                                                                 

 

Many commentators in the media believe that Japanese monozukuri ideals are now in jeopardy because of the demographic shift Japan is experiencing. Japan has an aging population and a declining population. This is expected to shrink the domestic market significantly, meaning fewer consumers to sell to but also a smaller pool of talented graduates to hire from. How is Takenaka Seisakusho reacting to these changes? What challenges or opportunities is it presenting?        

As you mentioned we are facing big challenges with AN aging and declining population. On the manufacturing side, we are trying to convert the processes that were usually done manually by people to ones that can be automated. We are trying to utilize technology and AI to convert these processes. Also, we are hiring younger and excellent people who are able to learn and respond to these new technologies. It requires a lot of money, time and effort on our part, which is indispensable for corporate development.                                                                               

On the other hand, there are still employees who are over the age of 60 but still have the will to work. We welcome those people to continue to work here. Even though we have employees over the age of 70, they have very important skills and knowledge, and we are asking them to help educate and train the youngsters. It is very important to have both elderly employees and younger employees together and to combine them both for the manufacturing side, especially for SMEs in Japan. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that all 100 million Japanese people should be working together in unison for the future good of the country, which we have already realized.                                                                                 

Speaking on the shrinking domestic market, our company cannot grow if we are only looking domestically. That is why in 2016 we established our plant in the UAE. Going forward we would like to target the Asian market. We believe that there is big room for growth in that market. We are proceeding with a survey for the construction of a new plant in Asia.                                                                                 

 

It was announced in 2020 by former Prime Minister Suga that Japan must be carbon neutral by 2050. In October last year the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the Strategic Energy Bill where they declared that 38% of all energy needs in Japan must come from renewable sources such as solar or wind power and 22% must come from nuclear power. We are aware that your company has a long history and experience working both domestically and internationally with nuclear companies. What opportunities does this government push for renewables and nuclear energy present for a company such as yourself?

For the natural energy sector, we are supplying a lot of bolts for wind energy plants. Those wind energy plants are on land right now, but with the government push, we will see more and more wind energy plants and wind farms move to the ocean. When a wind energy plant is built in the ocean, you need to have components that are anti-corrosive. There we can bring our TAKECOAT technology, so we would like to actively manufacture and apply the bolts for wind energy plants in the ocean. That is something we are promoting as a project now and we continue to hear from our customers. We are adapting and responding to their needs.                                                                                  

In terms of nuclear power, currently, there are 42 nuclear power plants in Japan, but only a few of them are active now. As you mentioned the Japanese government is pushing for nuclear power and thus is trying to reactivate these power plants. For the maintenance of those power plants, we believe that they need more bolts, and we would like to continue to supply the bolts for that purpose. When it comes to nuclear power plants, there are very strict standards, therefore we don’t see a lot of new players in this field and although we do have some competitors, we don’t have a lot in this field.                                                                              

We are very close to our clients; we are almost like partners and clients will often consult with us on the technical content of the bolt. Based on their opinions we manufacture and develop the bolts to their specifications. Due to the Ukraine war, the price of electricity is getting higher and higher. Recently Japan has been struggling to secure energy because of the scarcity of energy sources. I believe that in addition to the reactivation of existing power plants, we should also pursue building new power plants as well. America is currently pursuing this and attempting to build small-scale nuclear power plants. I hope that the Japanese government follows suit and has the kind of policy that enables the building of more nuclear power plants. It is crucial for a country such as Japan to be more self-sufficient with energy. We really need to do so, because, without this policy, lots of skilled people and companies are moving their operations to China and South Korea. I think that will be a big loss for the country.                                                                 

 

The TAKECOAT®-1000 technology is unique and the first of its kind developed here in Japan. We understand that traditional bolts are galvanized with zinc, but you have created this two-layer structure with a special fluorocarbon polymer film coating that has excellent durability and anti-corrosive properties with a variety of applications. Can you please explain to us the advantages of this bolt over conventional galvanized bolts? What kind of savings in terms of maintenance costs does it allow your customers to achieve?

TAKECOAT®-1000’s main advantage is the reduction in maintenance efforts. In fact, it provides for one-tenth of the maintenance effort of conventional zinc-coated bolts. As found in salt spray tests where these conventional zinc ones were rusted completely within 500 hours. TAKECOAT®-1000 lasted over 6000 hours and had not yet rusted. It is twelve times better than conventional coatings. With TAKECOAT®-1000 bolts in place, you don’t need to replace them for a very long time, thus reducing your costs. More importantly than the cost of purchasing bolts, it can reduce labor costs for maintenance. In fact, you won’t need any people to do maintenance for about 10 years. When it comes to the initial investment, of course, TAKECOAT®-1000 is more expensive than conventional cheap bolts, however, when you take into consideration the costs over the lifecycle of the product over ten years, customers can really save a lot of money and time.                    


     


The hallmark of a lot of your products is the thinness of the film.  The TAKECOAT® - CERAMIC1 is the best example of this. It has a 20-30 nanometer film and has applications that require high heat chemical resistance. Can you explain to our readers the importance of thinning the film in your surface treatment technology?

For the thinness of the film, we are trying to target within 50 microns, including the base coating and the top coating. For the top coating, we are pursuing less than 30 microns. We are trying to achieve a coating that is suitable for bolts, and by that, I mean a coating that enables you to fasten and unfasten said nuts and bolts and when the coating is too thick you can’t do that. And its adhesion is so strong that the film does not come off at the time of fastening. It is possible to apply this coating to bolts as small as 1cm in diameter.                                                                                   

 

The NANOTECT® bolt is something you developed with Kyoto University and GSI Creos Corporation. It is the first composite of both carbon nanotubes (CNT) and resin paint, something that has been difficult to overcome in research and development over the years. What were the significant roadblocks you faced developing this technology and how have  you overcome them?

The reason why we developed Nanotect ® was that CNTs were attracting attention at that time, and we wanted to use them to improve our products. The biggest drawback was the high concentration and the difficulty of achieving uniform dispersion in the liquid. We thought that if we could make the Takecoat®-1000 harder, we could get the perfect material that is rust-proof and hard to break. I knew it was going to be a very difficult journey, but I wanted to create something groundbreaking, so that was the starting point. We worked on a new product together with Kyoto University, which also contributed to the development of TAKECOAT®-1000 technology. It helped to strengthen our already very good relationship. GSI Creos also joined us in this development, becoming a supplier of carbon nanotube materials. By working together with the three parties, we were able to overcome these obstacles and create something special.                                                                                                                                                              

Given the success of NANOTECT®, are you looking for further co-creation or collaborative partners, especially overseas in Europe or America at all?

We would like to work actively with a partner company or partner counterpart to develop something new. Unfortunately, we can’t disclose details at the moment, but we are working on a new project with an overseas collaborative partner.                                                                        

Your company is much more than just a bolt manufacturer. We know that you are now supplying power electronics through your power electronics division. What synergies can you draw upon from bolt-based technologies to apply to power electronics? 

Our starting point was manufacturing bolts, and in order to solve the challenges our customers had, we came up with the technology for surface treatment. Both bolt manufacturing and surface treatment are relevant productions. It’s a very good combination, however, electronic equipment is something totally new and irrelevant to bolt making. It was started by an internal venture about 30 years ago by my father, who was the president and now is my advisor. He had a friend who was an expert in electronic equipment. He used to work for a company but was looking to go out on his own and work independently. My father started that electronic equipment division, with one room, one PC,  for that friend. This division has grown significantly into one of our main businesses with 40 employees. It brings in about 30% of total sales for the company.                                                                              

In terms of the synergies between the bolt and electronic equipment, when we look at the products themselves, we cannot find a lot of synergies. However, they do have something in common with the clients. Among our tier one clients, we supply our products directly to companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Hitachi Ltd.. We supply both bolts and electronic equipment to those companies. We are serving the same global companies with different types of products.                                                                                

The switch to EV cars is going to be a huge change for the automotive industry. Cars are going to become more of a service in the future, and even the infrastructure will change to charge these EVs as they travel along the highway. Is this an opportunity for your company, given your expertise in bolts and electronic components for infrastructure?

This is something that is not realized yet, but something we would like to make happen in the future. We are currently supplying bolts for various infrastructure projects such as bridges, highways, and subways. The electronic equipment division is also serving infrastructure with its technology. It’s something these different divisions share in common. In the future, we would like to be able to supply a smarter type of bolt, such as one enabling remote management of the fastening status.

If you look at tunnels as an example, sometimes accidents happen when a bolt gets loose. Maintenance of tunnels is done by humans rather than automation. We have thought about the possibility of having a sensor in the bolts. That way we would be able to remotely monitor the bolts and detect if any got loose. That is something we would like to provide to the infrastructure field at some point in the future, but as of now this is just an idea.        

                                                                      

As part of your midterm strategy, what goals have you set for the company? In terms of your expansion, you mentioned Asia would be a target for a new plant. Where would you like to open up there? What products will you be pushing and to what particular sectors?

In Asia, we would like to continue to expand, and we have our plant in the UAE that is supplying products to the Middle East market. We would like to expand into European and African markets from that plant. When it comes to the Asian market, we are still working on the research. In the future, we hope to transfer the manufacturing of basic bolts to that upcoming Asian plant, so that we can supply the Asian market and also the Japanese market at a price advantage.

In addition to this, we will continue to push forward with differentiation and value-added manufacturing. That is our company's philosophy. We will continue to serve the energy and infrastructure fields with our new products. To that end, we will be actively seeking a partner overseas. We are an SME, so we are not trying to grow our sales by outrageous amounts, rather we want to pursue originality and uniqueness, and to be a company that can make a solid profit.                                                                                                       

As you know we interview leaders and executives from many companies in different fields in Japan, and over 90% of them are male. As a female president, what are some of the challenges you’ve had to face and how have you turned them into opportunities or advantages for your company?

As you mentioned, there are only a few female presidents in the Japanese business world. This is very disappointing to me, and there are still many older people who believe that men should be the ones working and that they are the superior gender. It is still very hard for women to hold presidential or management positions. I want to change this situation and that is why I participate in an association called Monozukuri Nadeshiko*, where female leaders gather together, exchange information and nurture the next generation of female managers. We gather once every few months and we work together to spread our message across the nation.

*Monozukuri=manufacturing,

Nadeshiko=Dianthus flower, a personification of an idealized Japanese woman                                      

                                                                                                                      

Imagine we come back to do this interview again on the last day of your presidency. What are your dreams and goals that you hope to have achieved by then?

I’m not sure when the last day of my presidency will be, but three years from now our company will celebrate its 90th anniversary. After 90 comes 100, and I think I will still be president when we celebrate 100 years of existence. I’d like to continue sustainable growth for the company. I don’t mean huge growth in sales, I mean growth as a company that makes interesting and unique technology for Monozukuri.

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