Maruyama’s latest novel invention – ultrafine bubble technology – is bringing sustainable solutions for the global food, water and environmental sanitation sectors.
Could you share with us what monozukuri means for you and your company, and what you believe to be the strengths or competitive advantages of Maruyama that allow you to excel in the global marketplace?
Our philosophy and approach towards monozukuri is that it has infinite possibilities, and hitozukuri, or the building of human capacity, refers not only to building the capacity of our employees, but also our customers. It's important to notice the hidden demands of customers, which may not be fully noticed by them. It's crucial for us to spot that and provide new solutions or products for their emerging demands.
Our monozukuri philosophy has been passed down through generations in this company. What I heard from past generations was that the reason why our company started off by creating fire extinguishers was because that at that time there were many cases of fire in Japan, and the company founder wanted to help out in the field of fire and disaster prevention, so he invented this fire extinguishing system.
Afterwards, we diversified into agricultural equipment because in the early 20th century, Japan suffered from a shortage of food and farmers were having a hard time spraying their fields for pest control. Our company wanted to help them, so they converted the fire extinguishing containers into a spraying system so it would make the work of the farmers easier and contribute to the production of food. This shows the way in which our company philosophy has always been to try and contribute to society and mitigate social issues by providing new inventions and technologies.
The reason we are able to compete in the market both domestically and globally is because we've always been doing environment-related business. We were able to develop our core business based on demand for agricultural equipment and machinery, which accounts for 65 to 70% of our revenue.
Recently we’ve been focusing more on evolving from our core technology into food distribution so that we can contribute to the global food shortage issue. Although we may not be able to do something big, we can find things that can be improved with our technology, and provide new services.
The essence of our competitiveness also lies in our employees, who are an indispensable asset. Companies typically say “customer first and employees second”, but internally we focus on employees and they come first. The uniqueness of our company structure is that there's a labor union, but the management team have very good communication with them and they all work well together as one big team.
This unity is great for our team work. It may be considered a Japanese characteristic, but most employees are very conservative so adapting to changes can be a slow process, but once we know that a change needs to be adopted they take it very seriously and become very focused on doing so.
That’s what gives us our competitiveness. We have a family-like atmosphere within the company itself. We also have foreign employees, but we welcome them like family members. Although there may be a language barrier our employees are very open and willing to help out.
Furthermore, our employees are very willing to go anywhere to work for the Maruyama brand. I feel that our Japanese employees are willing to go anywhere in the world to pursue the work that they are delegated, and that is also one of our strengths.
Another strength is the technology that we have. We have high quality products that are based on technology that's been developed over years. We have a good relationship with an American distributor that has spanned more than 50 years, and they use our pumps in their car washes. In fact, about 70 to 80% of American car washes use our pumps, and that is because car washes need to continue operation 24/7 and our high quality pumps, together with our distributor's after-sales support and maintenance work, are able to withstand those harsh operating requirements. Although they are our customers, we feel that our relationship with our American distributor is more like a partnership.
When dealing with international markets, communication can be a major challenge when it comes to both communicating your strength to the international market and understanding the needs and trends in overseas markets. Can you tell us how you have managed to guide Maruyama to approach and overcome this communication barrier?
To promote thorough communication both internally within the company and to society outside, we have the mindset of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. When I go to visit our subsidiaries I am considered a foreigner, but it’s better for the locals to receive our services from other locals, so we have local management staff.
There is also a body of Japanese management staff, but maybe only one of them at each location. This person will communicate thoroughly with the local management staff to maintain an integrated structure within the company and also to learn about local needs and requirements, and communicate the benefits we bring them.
In order to have a common understanding through our global Maruyama network, we have a philosophy known as the “Maruyama Way” that calls for three things: placing the customer first, having a challenging spirit whilst being responsible, and valuing teamwork. This provides us with a common direction and the ability to provide new and better services to our customers.
As you mentioned, 60 to 70% of your sales come from the agricultural machinery sector but you also supply industrial machinery. 70 to 80% of car washes in the US use your pumps. Last June, your "UFB (Ultra Fine Bubble)" pump was adopted by "HITOWA Life Partner Co., Ltd." for use in the field of air conditioner cleaning. What other industries or applications are you looking to cater to?
Our main pillars are food, water and the environment, and our ultrafine bubble technology provides solutions for all these elements. In the area of food, our core technology is our agricultural machinery and we are now moving into food distribution. With water, we have pumps and water saving technology, and with the environment. We also have sanitation technology, using pumps to spray disinfectant against Covid.
With our SDGs (Sustainable Development Goal) and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) we were able to verbalize our vision and clearly state the directions we're going in. In pursuit of that vision, we used our pump technology in collaboration with another Japanese company to develop this ultrafine bubble technology, which is unique in the world.
The applications of this ultrafine bubble technology are very diverse. Initially, we had focused on developing it to reduce the urine sediments in male toilets. This has been a big issue in the sanitation industry because sometimes the urine sediment accumulates in pipes to the point where pipes have to be swapped out or chemicals used to flush it out. However, by using our ultrafine bubbles, the sediment gets softer and can be easily removed through washing. That has been the unique property of our ultrafine bubble technology.
This product is also used in the preparation and washing of vegetables in the food sector. The conventional way the industry did this was to first use a type of chemical on the vegetables and then wash them with water to rinse off the chemical which could impact consumers’ health. We tried to replace this chemical with our ultrafine bubbles, but that was not fully successful so we used it to augment that chemical and we were able to reduce the amount of chemical used and improve the taste of the vegetables at the same time. That was a big success.
We first implemented ultrafine bubbles at toilets in elderly homes and the people working there said that they were using groundwater for washing and that since it contained iron, it turned a brownish color, but by using our ultrafine bubbles they said they were able to have clearer washing water. Also, they said they could water their flowers with ultrafine bubbles and that the flowers grew better and bigger. Of course, there are many other elements like sunlight and the climate that are required for flowers to grow, but they say they're using less compost for the flowers thanks to our ultrafine bubbles, so there are many other potential applications in industrial and agricultural settings that we are looking into for this product.
Another example is a prototype shower head that uses ultrafine bubbles. I had dry skin and since using this shower head I haven’t needed to apply any creams to it.
Currently we are trying to incorporate CO2 into the ultrafine bubbles to create a photosynthesis effect for a future application.
This ultrafine bubble technology actually has been in Japan for quite some time. It's a Japanese technology, but what's different about ours is that we have a more dense bubble concentration level and can create the bubbles instantly.
Recently, we have developed a device to extend the life of water-soluble cutting fluid (coolant) used in metal processing. Our device instantly creates ultra-fine bubbles in the coolant, which has the effect of inhibiting deterioration caused by the growth of bacteria without the use of additives. We are working to commercialize this product for machine tool manufacturers and others who are striving to reduce their environmental impact.
What role does collaboration or co-creation play in your business model and are you currently looking for partners either in Japan or overseas?
We think it's very important to collaborate with other companies to keep up with social changes and grow. However, and this may sound like an excuse, Covid has been a hindrance and our company does not have an R&D capacity outside of Japan yet, so there's a lack of information about other companies that we could collaborate with and we need to overcome this and start collaborating with overseas companies.
Currently we work together with domestic companies. For example, there's a water cleaning system called RO (Reverse Osmosis) which takes the wastewater and converts it to clean water. This technology has been in Japan for quite some time and we combined our pump technology with a startup venture engaged in RO technology.
We’re working on a micro-sized scale compared to conventional sizes of RO solutions and the technology could be used, for example, in remote areas and islands. The system can take water from the toilet and change it into water for daily use.
Japan is known as a country vulnerable to natural disasters, and although it may not be hard to secure drinking water, securing water for daily use is a challenge so by applying smaller sized RO equipment, we are able to provide more water supply to people in case of an emergency. Another project that we are doing in collaboration with another company is to do with global warming issues. We are trying to improve and enlarge our battery lineup.
What is your strategy for developing your international business?
In our overseas strategy, of course the US is a very attractive market, but we have a limited amount of capital so currently our major focus is the Asian market. In China, we had an experience in the past of creating a joint venture to establish a production site.
We're still at the planning phase so I cannot disclose our strategy yet but we hope to develop an R&D center and also a service center in Asia.
We have Japanese staff stationed in a center to train and educate the locals and that would contribute to the fortification of our local factory and base, but at the same time we are able to secure personnel by dispatching talented local workers to Japan. In fact, our global strategy and Japanese strategy go hand in hand.
Let's say we come back to interview you again in three years' time for your company’s 130th anniversary. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company in that timeframe, and what would you like to have achieved by then?
In three years’ time my goal is to have our R&D center in full operation, developing products that are applicable and well received in the Asian market. In the North American market, demand is growing but there's disruption to the supply chain that has been hindering our production. In three years’ time, if the supply chain and logistics issues are resolved, we will be able to respond to all the growing demand and also provide new services.
The issue here is that we have a surplus of orders and we still need to meet the demands of our customers with our existing products, but at the same time we have to develop new products. Balancing out the current and the future would be crucial for us, and with ultrafine bubble technology, we hope to start penetrating the global market.