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Unique technologies that incorporate multiple processing for an optimal solution.

Interview - March 31, 2022

With over 70 years of history as an integrated manufacturer of pipe bending machines, including being the first in Japan to produce a double-bending pipe bender, Keiyo Bend is capable of providing tailor-made solutions for various industries. We sat down with President and CEO Kazuto Umino to hear more about their unique technologies and how they are quickly bringing IT technology into peripheral devices for pipe bending technology such as unmanned systems and multi-process pipe bender to adapt to the new needs of the market, and how they collaborate with customers to create better products.

HIROSHI HASEGAWA, PRESIDENT OF KEIYO BEND CO., LTD.
HIROSHI HASEGAWA | PRESIDENT OF KEIYO BEND CO., LTD.

In recent decades, Japanese firms have seen the rise of regional competitors in China, South Korea, and Taiwan who have replicated Japanese monozukuri at a cheaper cost. Yet, many Japanese firms maintain a large global share in niche B2B markets often characterised by high-mix low-volume production. As an integrated manufacturer of pipe bending machines, what does monozukuri mean for you?

Our company is not based on mass production. We make tailor-made industrial parts and work alongside mass manufacturers. The traditional direct marketing approach is to issue a catalogue from which customers can choose products, but our approach is to listen to what customers want and meet their needs. To us, monozukuri is about meeting clients’ expectations, so depending on their requests we manufacture everything in-house, conducting the design, programming, manufacturing, and assembly of finished product ourselves.

The main consideration is finding the correct fitting required by customers, which usually accounts for 70 percent of the initial design, while the other 30 percent is flexible. Therefore, we can integrate customers’ preferences when it comes to pipe bending machines. This exemplifies Keiyo Bend’s approach: while other pipe bending machine manufacturers offer their product line-up through catalogues, we collaborate with customers to create better products. Our ability to communicate is one of our strengths. This is how Keiyo Bend has remained successful for over 72 years.

We also engage in batch mass production because it is crucial to have stable financial resources. On the other hand, we still want to remain flexible and unique in our field. This has allowed us to stay in business for a long time and get ahead of our competition. We cannot speak for all Japanese companies, but to Keiyo Bend the essence of monozukuri is product variation. We were the first in Japan to produce a double-bending pipe bender to anticipate customers’ demands, which has historic significance.

Keiyo Bend’s monozukuri is based on collecting information and trying to stay ahead of customers’ needs. We are known as the only bender manufacturing company with unique technologies. We provide a process that complements our machinery and adds value to everything we produce. It would be impossible to meet customers’ specific pipe bending needs without our in-house technologies and machinery. This also demonstrates our company’s ability to introduce automation and systematisation.

The automotive industry is number one in Japan, and it was the second president who introduced automation for pipe bending machines to complement the automobile industry. Most of our customers have a unit-by-unit production line in which it is crucial to have a company that can identify and fix a malfunctioning unit immediately. Keiyo Bend is like a one-stop solution for the entire manufacturing pipeline.

 

You allude to Japan’s rich culture of craftsmanship, known for quality and innovation, yet this is threatened by the country’s ageing society and demographic decline, with estimates saying that a third of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2035. This has two main repercussions, namely causing a labour crisis and shrinking of the domestic market. What has the impact of Japan’s demographic challenges been on your company? 

Our company is trying many things to tackle this issue. We are introducing different variations of pipe benders and changing from hydraulic type pipe benders into “ALL servo” which means all of the power of the bending machines are from only AC servo motors. The AC servo motor type pipe bending allows young graduates who recently joined the company use the machine. Conventional pipe bending machines are hard to use, especially without an engineering or similar background. It is quite challenging to transfer this knowledge and expertise accumulated by experienced personnel over many years to the younger generation. With ALL servo it is very easy to handle, operate, and monitor systems as it just requires pushing buttons. This simplifies the work and allows anyone to work on the gemba.

After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, many engineers and other capable workers were moved to the gemba because of the labour force shortage, and this continued for many years. Nowadays, this is not the case. Even engineers on the gemba use the same machines as everyone else to perform the same tasks and this can foster a lack of competence. There are not many seasoned workers on the gemba nowadays who can transfer knowledge to the younger generation. ALL servo explains the work easily and simply to compensate for this.

 

Companies like yourself, who integrate their machines into other manufacturers’ automated production lines, face a common challenge, which is how to work with customers to make the best use of the machines you supply. What efforts have you made to overcome this obstacle?

We do not have a specific project that we can share right now, but our precise bending products help our customers increase their company’s performance efficiency. ALL servo, or AC servo motor types have replaced the power of our bending machines. Conventional machines run on hydraulic power, which has some disadvantages, such as a lack of stability. As a result, it affects the final product. ALL servo is stable and performs better. Automation has assisted us in our efficiency, and this is demonstrated by our production results. It is difficult to pick and choose our best products because our line-up is diverse and tailor-made, but we can increase our efficiency in every unit we produce.



While Japan has had great success in automation, it lags behind other developed nations when it comes to digital transformation (DX). In the Institute for Management Development’s 2020 World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, Japan was only 27th. You focus on using IT to quickly collect and analyse information: what impact has DX had on your business?

My background in IT engineering has enabled me to anticipate industry changes. Back in the day, I saw a lot of companies with old technologies and using conventional ways of manufacturing. The ALL servo series, aimed at companies who want to create clean and smart factories, resulted from anticipating such changes. I worked for an IT company before going back to my roots 14 years ago, when I inherited this business. The conventional bending process relies on crafts people’s experience and understanding of the process so that they may identify and fix problems that may arise. However, the ALL servo series helps workers identify problems and correct them right away with the help of the machine. A worker can simply input the necessary values into the machine to produce a better bending result.

Digitalisation has enabled our company to accumulate huge amounts of data on how the machines function. Being able to determine potential malfunctions ahead of time gives us an advantage. Even before negotiating with customers, we can send them a digital background report that will help them carry on their work with us.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for the global economy, but there have been some silver linings such as the increasing adoption of DX and IT technologies, and the growth of e-commerce. What impact has the pandemic had on Keiyo Bend?

Unfortunately, the pandemic had drastically affected our company’s sales. We saw a massive decrease in sales in January 2020, which continued until around May-June the following year. Although our overseas business has expanded, and we have already produced the machines to be sent overseas, we have not been able to ship the products to our customers due to the collapse in logistics wrought by the pandemic.

 

Your company has a close relationship with many automotive part suppliers and automotive makers. The automotive industry is undergoing huge changes, namely vehicle electrification and the adoption of fuel cell vehicles, and the use of lighter material to meet stricter regulations. How are these transformations impacting you?

In reference to tier one automobile parts manufacturers that supply seat parts, we see a tremendous and overwhelming change, including in the use of aluminium and carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers (CFRPs), the latter of which do not require much benzene, to replace iron. This is a little frightening; not all changes in the industry are good for us. We can switch from iron to aluminium in our high-tension steel bending but changing from iron to carbon is out of our scope. This is a big obstacle that we must consider. Another concern are drastic design changes. The car seat design, for example, affects the shape of the pipe that we make using an iron press. A drastic change in seat design is not a promising prospect for us.

 

You mentioned working closely with customers. In terms of collaboration and co-creation, are you currently looking for new partners in Japan or overseas?

We must face the reality that Big Data and AI are increasingly needed to complement conventional production lines. While we are aware of this, we are not quite sure how to carry out these changes: we might have to work with other companies that already have technologies and expertise in this area. We do not mass produce, so there is no major demand for Big Data or AI. But as a one-stop tailor-made production company, we need a dedicated department and to recruit system engineers to bring in new technologies that can solve customers’ problems. It is a difficult decision to make, but one that as CEO I must make soon.

 

You have been a part of JIT Automation since 1987, in 2002 you set up shop in Detroit, in the United States, and have a partner in South Korea. Looking to the future, are there any markets that are key to your overseas business?

Our company is targeting Europe and North America. Some might think that as a Japanese company it would make more sense to enter the Asian market, but as far as bending machines are concerned and given our unique pipe bending technologies, we cannot take over the Asian market due to pricing. As excellent, accurate, and functional as our products are, we cannot penetrate the Asian market, which is heavily price oriented. Therefore, our company wants to focus on Europe and North America because they are economically developed and share our values when it comes to high quality bending machines technologies. This is our approach to overseas expansion.

 

As the third-generation president of this company, which was founded in 1950, what goals would you like to achieve during your presidency?

It is quite early to think about what I would like to achieve during my presidency because I am still young and healthy. But we are facing a shrinking market and not a lot of key players remain. The leading company is OPTON, which also produces CNC pipe bending machines for the domestic and overseas markets. We have competition, so as a small company with only around 40 employees, we need to work hard to penetrate the market. Because we are a family business, our philosophy is to secure ownership and continuity for the next generations.

Since I joined the company, we have faced several moments of hardship. In 2008, there was the Lehman shock, in 2011 the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and now we are living through the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of things need to be done. We need to have strong ideals and be adaptable to create the best products and meet customers’ demands. We aim to reach our 100-year anniversary and want to continue applying the company’s philosophy as we move forward.

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