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The pipe mill champion working behind the scenes

Interview - September 11, 2023

For over a century, Kusakabe Electric & Machinery has developed pipe mills for customers in fields that range from the automotive to the nuclear power industry.


Over the last 25-30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturing competitors who have replicated Japanese monozukuri processes by taking advantage of cheaper labor costs, pushing Japan out of mass industrial markets. However, Japan is still a leader when it comes to niche B2B fields. How have Japanese firms been able to maintain their leadership despite the stiff price competition?

We do not have particularly outstanding technologies or materials. However, we are an expert in the type of pipe mill manufacturing, which is not immediately obvious, so our products work behind the scenes. Many companies in many countries use our equipment in their factories, and we supply them with the basic materials that will produce their products behind the scenes.

Looking into the automotive sector, and the motorcycle manufacturers, most of their frames are made using pipes, like for Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha or Kawasaki. Those frames are supplied by steel makers like Nippon Seitetsu and JFE, and for them to supply pipes for frames, we supply them with pipe mills.

Demand is now shifting from the seamless type of pipes to the new type of pipes, which is a more cost effective one. For stabilizers, normally you use the bar that does not have a hole in it, but they started using one that has a hole in it, so they looked into the seamless type of pipes, but those are expensive and also, it is heavy weight, so they are looking into new types of pipes, which are made using ERW (electron resistance welding). That is how we are attracting a lot of attention from steel makers.


It is a time of great change within the automotive industry with the switch to EVs. As a result of this, we are seeing the emergence of newer, more lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium and CFRP. What are the effects that this change in materials has had on your business so far?

In line with the change in materials, a lot of car makers are now working on projects to lighten their products and materials. In order for them to achieve that, they needed stronger pipes because the thickness must be smaller - from 4.5 millimeters to 2.3 millimeters (for instance) - and in order to achieve such thin pipes, they need higher strength material, so they needed to reform their equipment entirely so that they could produce new components with new materials.

Also, the materials are changing and shifting towards alloys rather than pure materials, and a lot of these alloys now have additives like manganese. You need to deal with these alloys, and it is going to be harder to do the welding, so for us it poses a challenge for bending. However, that is actually an extension of what we have pursued so far, and we are now trying to visualize our experiences and know-how into numerical data so that we can provide analysis to our clients. We are trying to have a better technological basis for pipe mills, so this change of materials will cause more difficulties and challenges for material makers, but for us it is the extension of what we have done so far.

In line with the shift to EVs, if the new vehicles do not use any more pipes, then that is going to be a big challenge for us. However, even though the engine changes and the transmission changes, and all the other related components change, they use the same frames, they use the same chair for human beings, and they also use the same handles and the same stabilizers. In those parts and components, pipes are used, so even with the change to EV, we still have the market for pipes, and what we are required to do is respond to the new type of technology that is suitable for new materials or more difficult materials. Right now, we are focusing on improving our basis for the technology.


One of your most well-known mills is the aluminum radiator pipe mill, which is used to manufacture aluminum alloys for radiator tubing, and this machine is also the choice of many manufacturers around the world. What are the strengths of the aluminum radiator pile mill that makes it successful amongst global manufacturers?

Aluminum has got a lot more strength than before, so aluminum-based material is getting thinner. In the past, it used to be as thick as 0.25 to 0.3 millimeters, but now it is less than 0.2 millimeters. As it gets thinner, you need to enhance the accuracy of the pipe mills, and it should be at the micron level, so when you weld the material, you need to reduce the join between these two materials. That needs to be 5% of 0.2 millimeter, which is the one-micron level, so high precision and accuracy is required, and you need to maintain that level of accuracy when you operate the machine at a speed of 2,000 millimeters per second.

It is not noticeable by the human eye, but behind the machine, that kind of technology is running, and at a speed of 2,000 millimeters per second, we are cutting the material 400 times per minute. That is the conventional speed, but we are able to achieve 480 to 500 per minute. I think that is why our machines are gaining a lot of recognition.


Your machines are used throughout many industries. Apart from automotives, we also know they are used in oil and gas, motorcycles and more. Are there any new industries that you would like to expand your machines into?

We have already covered most of the sectors possible. Speaking about structural, or construction related pipes, we have applied our technologies to large scale pipe mills that are used for bridge making and construction.

In terms of the energy sector, our pipe mills are used for the boiler tubes that are used in power generation. In the stainless field, there are a lot of markets that apply our technologies. For all these different markets and sectors, we are trying to provide the technology that our customers need, and it is a matter of how the customers will use our technologies. For Nippon Seitetsu, we supplied pipe mills for nuclear power generation and power stations. We do the same thing for these two different sectors, but they differentiate our technologies for the different sectors, and the same goes for the automotives.

There are so many different applications. One of them is needles for injections that are thin. We do the same as in the other sectors. We just create the pipe mills for regular pipes, and when the clients make really thin needles with our pipe mills, then that will be used for needles used in injections, and if they use it as it is, then they can produce sanitary tubes, so the clients are the ones who cover all the possible sectors, and we supply high quality pipe mill technologies to them.


You install your machines into factories, meaning they have to be integrated into different manufacturing lines, which can vary depending on the company. How do you adapt your products to different manufacturing lines? Can you give us a specific example of how you were able to achieve this process?

It is hard to summarize in one word. All the different clients use different types of materials. For example, we have a client which is the number one pipe maker and makes pipes for the major car makers like BMW or Mercedes. We supply our technology and machines to them and they use German materials which are different from the materials in Japan, so we need to fine tune our machines in line with those different materials and the different technologies that clients have.

We have to incorporate those technologies into our machines, so we cannot just copy the technology from one place to another, from Germany to Italy or from Japan to Germany. We have to customize and fine tune it in line with the different conditions and technologies. To achieve that goal, we often partner together with clients to come up with the best solutions, and in that process, we mutually advance our technologies. Since the materials are different, the required technology for welding is also different, so we work together with clients to come up with the optimal solution.

When it comes to partnerships, are you looking internationally or domestically to form an R&D partnership to develop new technologies together?

When you refer to a partnership, that can have several different meanings, but for us, partnership means to have teamwork with other companies without any capital relationship. In terms of that type of partnership, we are working on several on the same project with the same goals. For the pipe mills, there are many process steps before and after the piping, like the forming or the secondary processing, like raw coolant, so we need to partner with these makers for these different process steps, and we are doing so because if one of these makers fails, then all of the other makers will also fail, so we need to work together and we are working together with the makers that we have confidence in.

We do not have a capital relationship because if we do so, then we would have a different type of relationship, so we want to partner with companies that have the same goals, and then grow together. When we need new technology to be imported from other countries, we do so, and we incorporate that into our machines so in that sense, we are partnering with overseas companies to make new equipment, including measurement equipment.


Your DNC series flying, shear-type cut-off press takes advantage of the nick-and-shear method of cutting. Can you tell us how this DNC series flying, shear-type cut-off press is superior to more conventional machines on the market?

In a conventional clutch and brake system, when the two components are engaged, the engine is activated. When these get switched off, the engine stops. In the flywheel method, a big steel piece rotates in it, and this rotation produces the torque, and when the torque force is weakened, then energy is dispersed. Then you can stop the engine. That was the conventional way.

You asked about the new type of system where the clutch and the brake systems are not used. Instead, we use a motor. With a motor, you can accelerate or slow down the speed, and you can also stop the motor’s operation, and when you stop, you can adjust the speed.

With that technology, when you cut materials, especially alloys, you can choose the optimum speed of cutting. If you use the conventional clutch and brake system, it can cut only at a fixed speed, and when you cut the material, it might melt the blade because of the heat produced by that speed.

In that system, the time required for cutting is related to the temperature, so imagine that in a conventional system you cut 100 times per second, and if you do so in 0.5 seconds, then the temperature is going to be half, so for example, if the material’s melting point is 1400 degrees Celsius, then if you halve the speed of cutting that material, then you can halve the temperature produced by that machine, so it will not melt the material, and that is achieved by the DNC motor. With that technology in place, you are able to achieve stable production, and that is why it is highly recognized by many different sectors and applied to different sectors. The motor size is getting bigger and bigger, as required by the customer.

A lot of makers are starting to recognize that motors can drive presses, so recently, the automakers have applied this technology and use the motors for their press machines. For forming technology, a lot of companies use servo presses. If you use the clutch and brake system, then the speed of the pressing is the same but with the motor in place you can slowly move the machine. The cost is higher for a motor, but from the functional perspective, more and more clients choose this machine.

Speaking about the ‘nick and the shear’ method, conventionally, when you cut the pipe, the blade cuts into the pipe and may create a dimple on the pipe. However, with this ‘nick and the sheer’ method, the surface is cut and the blade is put into the pipe. With that method, you do not cause any deformation of the pipe, which leads to higher yields. It also facilitates subsequent processing of the items.


Moving forward, what other countries or regions have you identified for further expansion into? What strategies would you employ?

So far, we have not chosen the locations. The customers chose the locations, and we went out there together with them. That is how we went out to the US. We have a lot of customers there, and the same goes for India. Now times have changed, and IT has advanced a lot compared to the past, so in that context, even without a physical presence, we are able to enter into new markets. The only remaining problem is the time lag. For the US, the time is completely opposite to us, and for European countries, we have an eight-hour time difference, but what is good about it is if we receive a question from them at night, Japan time, then we can reply to them while they are sleeping, so in the morning they can find out the answer and we can achieve seamless communications.

We can use teams or other technologies so that we can meet with potential clients in other countries. Now that the border has been opened, we will see what is going to happen next.

Speaking about North and South America, we have a client in Brazil that is using our machines, and if we have a presence in North America, then we can easily cover South America because there is no time lag there, and the same goes for India. If we have a presence in India, then we can easily cover the Middle East, for example.

For European countries, we have customers in the UK, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Turkey. At this moment, I would say it is hard to tell what is going to happen, but we always have an interest in going out to other regions and countries, but it really depends on the situation.


Imagine we come back to interview you again on the last day of your presidency. What would you like to have achieved by then?

Talking about my goal, what I am always trying to achieve is not just setting out targets for certain periods. I would like to continue the flow of advancement endlessly, so our target is not about enlarging the size of our business, but we want to obtain evaluation and recognition from the market. We have been to many different countries to address these different markets, and we were even willing to challenge the most difficult tasks that other competitors were not willing to take. Whenever we go out to a new market with our clients, I myself go out to that country to see whether that country is a good place for our employees to live or work in, and I feel the difference when I go out to that country, rather than just looking into that country from Japan. As such, I tried to expand the business to many countries so that we could survive as a company. Then we tried to address the problems that our clients had, and we would like to continue this effort so that we can enhance the value of our existence.

Our goal is not about the size of the business, but to enhance the value. We are trying to add value for the client. In that goal, we do not look into higher returns on investment or higher revenues, but we would like to continue enhancing the value and I would like to continue this effort seamlessly into the next generation. I may be saying the same thing when I retire, but this is my goal. We have about 110 employees now, and revenue is around ¥2.5-3 billion. There have been ups and downs in revenue, but we would like to level off these ups and downs. In order to achieve that, we would like to expand across the world.

I tried to address the number one pipe makers for each of the different regions and countries. I did so in Japan, USA, Germany, Italy, India. I couldn't address the one in Russia, but anyway, I tried to address the number one pipe maker for each country and I tried to expand the business to the world. Maybe it would be great if we could show a clear goal or target, but we are pursuing steady efforts. It may not be so exciting, but steady efforts have paved our way so far, so we are going to continue that process.

Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Ana Ruiz