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Threading the future of advanced materials manufacturing

Interview - June 20, 2022

From the cover of VOGUE Magazine, to the Tokyo Olympics ceremony, and from track and field sprint shoes to surgical assistive suits, Sun Corona Oda’s innovative textiles and composite materials have been showcased in various remarkable main stages, as well as workplaces around the world. In this occasion we e had the pleasure to sit down with President Tokio Oda to learn more about their converter system, as well as their philosophy based on a “lively management with lively hearts”, and their new world-class fiber division business including Sun Corona Oda’s original Flexcarbon method of mass producing CFRP material.

TOKIO ODA, PRESIDENT OF SUNCORONA ODA CO., LTD.
TOKIO ODA, | PRESIDENT OF SUNCORONA ODA CO., LTD.

What does monozukuri mean to you and your company, and what do you believe to be the strengths of Japan’s industry that allow it to compete in the global marketplace?

Before answering your question, I would like to discuss the business model we have been working on in recent years. For a long time, the Japanese textile industry has had a vertically integrated structure. There was a division of labor by process, such as with raw materials, knitting, processing, dyeing, and sewing, and so forth, this has been the norm.

For us to survive in the global market, we had to first dismantle this structure and then develop our own integrated system from raw materials to finished products. We call this system the "converter system" and consider it one of our most important strategies. I believe that this approach to "manufacturing" in a single integrated manner is a very good one and a universal strategy to survive in the global market. I think everyone should take this approach, but few companies seem to adopt it. Why is that? The answer is that it is not easy.

Our system is a one-stop shop from raw materials to finished products, but it is not so easy to implement. This is because it requires a thorough understanding of everything from product planning and design to production technology. We must have a "marketing mindset" to think about how to link the products to satisfy customers and thus lead to sales. We have to also have the "manufacturing capability" to consistently handle everything from yarn processing to weaving, dyeing, and sewing in-house, which is necessary to create products that sell well. This system works only when it combines both elements.

There are five characteristics that make the converter system possible for our company.

First, we operate the converter system based on direct marketing, which allows us to obtain market information such as sales trends from our customers. In fact, we are able to gain a large portion of the market share from some companies. Through this process, we are able to listen directly to end users and anticipate new trends.

Second, is cost. We have a global supply chain. We have production bases in China and Vietnam, and we are working to build an efficient operation, focusing primarily on cost reduction and stable supply in volume. In Japan, our partner factories based in the textile town of Hokuriku demonstrate superior technical capabilities to produce functional, high-quality yarns and textiles. In Vietnam and China, we produce cost-competitive products, while in Japan we produce high value-added products.

A third strength is our "impannatore" (coordination) unit. We have a large number of staff members who know the price range of our products, current hot-selling products, current trends, and future projections. We also have a great deal of expertise in product design, and we are the connoisseurs between the market and the manufacturing industry. This is part of the driving force of our company.

Our fourth strong point is our development center in Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. There, we not only process raw materials and manufacture textiles, but also develop all kinds of prototypes that support manufacturing. Since retail companies do not have the know-how to develop their own materials or process to create products, we take the lead in material development and propose new values that fuse the sensibilities of the times with functionality.

Finally, we have an archive of over 5,000 products developed over the past 50 years at our headquarters. This is only a part of what we have achieved so far, but it enables us to learn from our accumulated past experience as well as to hone our sensibilities in material and design development in order to move forward. We are able to make proposals quickly to each customer by utilizing all these functions (factors).

In addition, we hold meetings called "hybrid meetings" with yarn manufacturers, textile machinery manufacturers, and other related vendors. The meeting provides an opportunity for free exchange of opinions and information that transcends barriers and generates innovative ideas for development.

 

How are you contributing to achieving a sustainable society through your products and through your company?

Recently, a dress designed by TOMOKOIZUMI graced the cover of VOGUE. The dress was made of our material, and in the same magazine, we were introduced as "the manufacturer, Suncorona Oda, an Osaka-based company that develops innovative materials in Japan," and has "technical capabilities to produce high-quality, ultrafine thread fabrics are unmatched in the world.” Not only that, from the viewpoint of sustainability, the fact that our recycled organza is made from 100% recycled fiber was also spotlighted.

The dress that singer MISIA wore to sing the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics last year was designed by TOMOKOIZUMI and made of our organza recycled fiber. Even in organza, which is made of recycled fiber, it was introduced as a high-quality sustainable material that is comparable to existing fabrics.

One of our most world-class capabilities is the technology to split filament yarn into ultrafine filaments. A filament yarn is 450 km long, and we have the technology to split this yarn into 1/3 the thread thickness of a hair without breaking it. I don't think any other company in the world has this kind of technology. The high quality organza, tulle, and other fabrics made with this yarn boast a large market share not only in Japan but also in Europe.

How is it possible to have such a large market share? We always aim for perfection in one specialized technique called "spinning," and this is the basis of our "monozukuri spirit.”

The Japanese people have a unique characteristic of manufacturing with attention to detail, which allows us to achieve a high level of quality control. Furthermore, we are truly user oriented. We work side by side with our French customers to see what they want from textiles, and we try to develop new products based on that analysis. That is why we are number one on the world market in this field.

 

Flexcarbon is a new and unique method of mass producing CFRP material using a press molding sheet method. How does Flexcarbon balance functionality with mass productivity, and what are some of the new applications you’ve found for it?

Most CFRP manufacturers use carbon fiber and thermosetting resin in their development, but we specialize in thermoplastic resin, which is easy to recycle, and we have created a new material by spreading fiber in the manufacturing process based on our proprietary technology of fiber splitting, which is a major difference from others. This is what sets us apart from our competitors.

For example, one of our customers, "a major company in the sports industry," focused on using Flexcarbon to solve its customers' problems. The result was a revolution in track and field sprint shoes. Conventional competition shoes had heavy metal pins attached to the soles, but by using Flexcarbon, high strength and complex shapes became possible, eliminating the metal pins and instead creating a revolutionary sole with a honeycomb structure that captures the ground.

The greatest appeal of Flexcarbon is that it simultaneously achieves complex formability and high strength, which were not possible with conventional carbon fiber composite materials and can be mass-produced using a press machine. By mass-producing these soles on a press machine, we can expand the range of development to familiar products that can be used not only by top athletes but also by a wide range of general users. While mass producers often aim to reduce production costs, we always aim for user-oriented "manufacturing" that is easy for our customers to use. For example, it is very difficult to realize the complex shapes of shoes with CFRP, but we prioritize how we can achieve this, and consider costs that can be addressed by pursuing mass production efficiency to be a secondary issue.

I would like to touch on the background of the development of Flexcarbon as a new material. We entered the CFRP market quite late, and if we had taken the same approach as other large companies, we would not have been as successful as we are today. The first thing we did was to listen to a number of customers and manufacturers in order to explore the needs of the market. We talked to molding companies about the problems they were having, and we talked to university professors. What emerged from this was the fact that while anyone in the textile industry can currently use CFRP technology to make simple plates, no one has yet been able to make plates with complex geometries. For example, many automotive parts have complex shapes. A university professor advised us that if we could have CFRP technology that could solve this problem, it would not be a dream to gain a large market share, and we decided to pursue this technology.

 

What other applications are you looking at for Flexcarbon, and are you looking to introduce this technology overseas? If so, to which countries?

The first product we worked on was a shoe close to consumer's everyday lives. Since our cause was "CFRP flex carbon that is close to people," sports shoes were the perfect product for us.We then brought this technology to surgical assistive suits developed to prevent back pain for surgeons performing operations for hours on end. To meet the needs of workplaces where people stand for long periods of time, we developed a lightweight version to reduce the burden on the lower back caused by standing work and to make it easier to walk and move. We also derived the word "assist" as a key word from our motto of "taking the pain out of standing work.

We are also thinking of applying Flexcarbon to personal mobility vehicles. We intend to use Flexcarbon to enable lightweight, complex shapes that can accompany people in their daily lives. In the global market, we would like to target Asian and European countries. European countries have a long history of using CFRP and we are trying to work with European manufacturers and vendors because Europe is leading the CFRP market.


Shoes equipped with Flexcarbon

Flexcarbon CF reinforcement from base to top


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 are still able to do well in the textile industry not only because of our domestic production, but also because we have been able to leverage our overseas production bases in China, Vietnam, and other countries to be cost competitive. We place great importance on introducing Japanese technology to these countries, upgrading their skills, and maintaining the same high level of excellence in each country as we do in Japan.

Since our founding, our manufacturing philosophy has been "lively management with lively hearts," and we bring this philosophy, along with our technology, to these countries, where our employees are like family. We do not distinguish between countries but pursue our own high technology and skills in each country. I think that is one of our competitive advantages. We not only give them work, but we share with them our culture and the culture of manufacturing that we have tried to pursue in collaboration in each country. This makes it a win-win relationship. We bring them the philosophy of production and in return they bring us profit.

 

Let's say we come back to interview you again in three years' time for your company’s 50th 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?

We would like to achieve our goal of 20 billion yen in sales for the entire group. The second is to further share our philosophy, "Iki Iki Management with Iki Iki Heart," with our employees. “Iki Iki Management" means that employees take ownership of their work and try to improve their work independently. Innovation is created when both the organization and the individual have firm goals. With the spirit of "no profit without innovation," each and every employee is striving to achieve this goal. Finally, since the CFRP business is still new, we want to make a profit by our own efforts. We have also started a new e-commerce business. We are a manufacturing company, and we want to succeed in this field as well.

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