Osaka Titanium Technologies Co., Ltd. is a Japanese non-ferrous metal manufacturing company, which is one of the world's largest producers of titanium sponge. We speak with president Yasuaki Sugizaki, who gives his insight into the titanium industry and the growing applications for the company’s products, such as in the automotive and aerospace industries.
In the last 25 years Japanese manufacturers have been put under pressure from regional competitors in China, South Korea, and Taiwan that have replicated the Japanese monozukuri processes, but done at a cheaper labor cost, providing the world with cheaper yet lower quality products. How would you define monozukuri and why do you believe that Japanese companies have been able to maintain their leadership in terms of technological power?
It is true that some manufacturing companies prefer the Chinese or Korean products because as long as these regional competitors have acquired excellent machines and good workers, they can produce products of similar quality. Cheaper labor costs indeed make the difference, in that area Japan will inevitably lose to its competitors. However, there are manufacturing sectors where Japan is able to maintain leadership, these are the sectors that give value to the accumulated know-how and technical expertise of Japanese companies where Japan has the advantage. For example, if you take a look at the chemical and metal material industries, these industries not only require excellent machines and good workers, but also require know-how and technical expertise for the optimum operation of plants. Japan has those skills and we are still competitive in those sectors. On the other note, aside from the fact that the automotive industry is booming, Toyota is still very strong because of their unique monozukuri process.
Japan, US, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, China and most recently Saudi Arabia are the only countries that can currently manufacture titanium sponge, and among these countries only a few companies are able to manufacture high quality titanium sponge. Also bear in mind that two US producers are on indefinite idling. What are your competitive advantages and how are you able to differentiate yourselves from your competitors?
The US and Russia started producing titanium sponge for their military activities. Japan’s case is another story, after World War II Japan began its industrialization policy and it focused on steel and other metal materials. The US, Russia and Japan had different reasons when they started producing titanium sponge, but nowadays they are competing for the same reasons - general industrial applications. As regards our company’s strength we developed our own production process through trial and error which we have done over the past years. In our technical department we are not only dealing with manufacturing technology but also testing and analysis technology. The way we apply stringent quality control in our company allows us to produce high-quality titanium sponge that are approved for use in the most critical jet engine applications. We have had to face technical hurdles such as reducing electrical power cost, but we were able to overcome them. Titanium sponge production requires a huge amount of electricity and the unit price of electricity here in Japan is around two or three times higher than that in the US. We developed our own electrolysis cell plant and our workers have accumulated the necessary skills for us to remain competitive. One of the challenges that we see is the difficulty to automate some of our production processes, however, we believe that AI, IoT, and Big Data are going to be our weapon to overcome these challenges.
The number of applications of titanium has increased, for example, we now see that it is more widely used in aircraft because it is lightweight. Lighter materials such as titanium have contributed to the weight reduction of aircraft, in fact, the titanium ratio in recent wide-body models is increasing and represents over 10% of total materials used in aircrafts by weight, when compared to many conventional models where titanium is used less than 5%. How are these changes affecting your business and how are you able to meet the needs of the aerospace industry?
The usage of titanium increases as the usage of CFRP increases for the aerospace industry, the primary reason is the heat expansion ratio of titanium is similar to CFRP’s. However, there will always be changes and for that reason we have to continue to look for more areas of applications, one example is in the Toyota Mirai which is a fuel cell vehicle. Titanium is used for the separator in fuel cell batteries.
Countries around the world are introducing regulations on the automotive industry to reduce CO2 emissions, therefore the car manufacturers are being forced to change the materials to aluminium or titanium. How do you adapt to these changes in the automotive industry?
In the automotive industry titanium is being used as a key component of fuel cell vehicles which will be widely used in the future if you look at the trend. Aside from the automobile industry, the titanium industry is looking into other areas where titanium is used such as in Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), a technology where electricity is generated by utilizing the temperature difference between sea surface and deep ocean water. We believe that titanium will be required in many ways due to environmental policies that have been put in place. If you look at the initial cost of materials needed it is very expensive but once titanium has been made in the long run it is actually cheaper because it lasts longer.
Titanium sponge (after crushing)
Please explain to our international readers a little bit more about your technologies and history?
Our technologies are constantly under quality control, and we use them to utilize the outstanding properties of titanium. Compared to other metals, titanium is stronger, lighter and corrosion resistant. In 1952 OSAKA Titanium succeeded in industrializing titanium sponge production, the first in Japan, and started its full-scale commercial production in 1954. Our advanced technologies and know-how have made us one of the leading manufacturers of titanium sponges around the world. In spite of today’s strong demand only a handful of countries are able to manufacture titanium sponge, and OSAKA Titanium is one of the few companies that are able to produce high quality titanium sponge. Our company manufactures both pure titanium powder and alloy titanium powder - alloy titanium powder is used for 3D printers. Although it is still in the development stage, we also have silicon monoxide which can be used for high-capacity lithium-ion batteries.
Japanese companies invest massive amounts into their R&D to introduce new products and technology as well as to be competitive domestically and globally. We have seen different companies that are now trying to shift overseas to find partners in terms of co-creation and joint development. Could you please share with us your R&D capabilities, and do you have any upcoming products that you’d like to showcase to us and to our international readers? Is your company open to any co-creation and joint-development activities?
R&D is important for our company in terms of production technology and quality improvement which we have been working on since the establishment of the company. Another aspect of R&D is the creation of new businesses. If you want to create a new business, it is important to collaborate with other companies.
We have two products which we would like to introduce, our alloy titanium powder for additive manufacturing and silicon monoxide for lithium-ion batteries. There are many titanium powder companies in the world, but what makes us competitive is the strength that we have as a titanium sponge producer, we are able to control and manage the quality from sponge making all the way to powder making. We can compete in terms of quality as well as the cost. As for silicon monoxide, we market silicon monoxide for many years as a material for a wide range of packaging applications. In addition to this conventional market, we are now developing silicon monoxide anode material for lithium-ion batteries using our silicon monoxide.
TILOP（Titanium Low Oxygen Powder）- alloy titanium powder for additive manufacturing
How do you foresee the future of titanium?
If we look at the history of a few metals, copper has four thousand years of history and iron has three thousand years, whereas titanium, compared to other metals, has less than a hundred years after it has become industrialized. We believe that the applications and the usage of titanium will expand ever more. The only hurdle is the price of titanium is still high, for this reason it has not become a commonly used metal despite its properties - titanium is lighter and stronger.
One of the reasons why titanium sponge remains expensive is that it is processed by batch. If we make titanium sponge by continuous processes, such as how aluminium and steel are made, then the price will go down, however, this is a technical challenge that one has yet to overcome. We have tried in the past but despite the efforts we were not successful, nonetheless we have to continue trying.
Imagine we come back to interview you again in two or three years, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company and what would you like to have accomplished by then?
Due to the impact brought by Covid-19 the demand of titanium for aerospace has skydived, but in about three years we know that the titanium industry is going to go back to normal and we will be working on our goals and strategies once again. The products - the alloy titanium powder, and the silicon monoxide materials that we are now developing - will be widely used in the next few years. If we look into a more distant future the titanium usage will be more widespread because titanium has many excellent properties. It is our company’s responsibility to ensure that everybody can use titanium, this will be our contribution to make a better world.