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Waste not, want not

Interview - April 24, 2023

As a pioneering manufacturer of water filtration, Sanshin does not compromise when it comes to providing environmentally sound water-saving technologies


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?

This is my personal opinion, so I do not know if I am saying the right thing, but I think the reason why Japan is still competitive in the global market, is because generally, a Japanese person’s education and training level is quite high. When I went to, for example, countries like Taiwan and China, you could see the level of the workers is different. Some are highly educated, and some are not, whereas in Japan, there is quite a high standard of education. As an employee, you can assume and plan out the work more efficiently and effectively. Since Japan is a safe country, it is easier for companies to invest and develop new products. Due to the geographic locations and small land size, and with a highly centralized population, that makes business more efficient and provides services more efficiently with lower capital.

Until recently, I believed the Japanese characteristics of diligence and sincerity have become an advantage. However, with the advent of IT and AI, those Japanese characteristics may be a disadvantage. Our company, for example, is a small one with not many people, so it is important for us to make each and every employee more and more inspirational in being able to be creative and give new ideas in order to keep our competitiveness.


One product series that you offer is of course the Eco Ace Alpha series which includes the Type C, a cartridge type precision filter that achieves stable filtration using cartridge filter media such as string-wound filter paper, but other filter media can be utilized, depending on the application. Can you tell us how the Eco Ace Alpha Type C is superior to more conventional filters?

The reason we have such diverse filter media is that we are asked by our customers if they can filter liquids. We received so many different kinds of liquid samples with high and low viscosity at our laboratory, it could be acid or alkaline. In order to filter each and every different type of liquid, we use different media such as paper, cotton or others. The advantage that we have as a company is we have a wide range of filtration methods and media. If you see other companies, you could classify them into rough filtration devices and finer filtration devices. We can cater to both fine and rough filtration, and that is the advantage. We are able to cater to a wider range of customers.

Eco Ace Alpha is a molded product made of propylene resin reinforced with glass fiber. Therefore, it has excellent corrosion resistance against chemicals such as acids and alkalis. Another major feature is that various filter media such as wound, melt blown, membrane, leaf, and bug filter can be used. This filter is based on our accumulated know-how and technology on corrosion and leak prevention of the chemical, or the liquid, for filtration. We have made many failures and learned lessons, so we are able to make the most adequate type of equipment.


How are you able to balance cost-effectiveness, and supplying an ideal solution to clients abroad?

This is a difficult issue and we are still struggling to find an adequate answer. I explained about our focus on the spec and the quality, but the uniqueness of Eco Ace is that it is easy to use. As I mentioned, the level of workers is different, especially in Asian countries, so it is important for our device to be easily used by anyone whilst delivering the same kind of performance. For example, there is a bolt in the filtration device that is closed manually. The lid is closed and the bolt is screwed on manually, so depending on the person, some may use stronger force and some could be weaker. If the level varies, the sealant inside can leak, affecting its longevity, and it can also have a different life span, and if it is too hard, the sealant may warp.

However, we have developed a bolting system where anyone can bolt it and have the same result every time, so overall, the cost of maintenance and the longevity of the product is improved. It is hard to break the product, so this product is actually contributing to the overall reduction of costs.


An important aspect of sustainability is water treatment and it is not just limited to purification. In your case, we know you provide technologies for separation and the ability to recover rare metals as well as heat energy. An example of this is the Econoback integrated system of wastewater treatment that can recover valuable metals as well as remove impurities. Can you give us more detail about how this Econoback system can help your customers achieve a more sustainable society?

We do not have the actual data on how much of a contribution our devices are making to carbon neutrality. However, there are many positive impacts that our solution is providing. First and foremost, they are energy-efficient, and energy-saving, devices. By providing our products to the chemical industry, our clients can lengthen the life of their chemicals with our filtration method. This means that the frequency with which they replace their chemicals is greatly reduced. That is, of course, good for the environment.

In processes that use various chemicals such as plating, there is a process of rinsing with a large amount of water before moving to the next process, and the rinsing water used here containing heavy metals is discarded. However, with our technology, the amount of water needed for rinsing could be reduced to anything from 50% to 100%, but that is not what we are trying to achieve. You can go up to around 90% in the reduction of the usage of water. After rinsing, there remain rare, heavy metal ions, and we retrieve them. Through this retrieving process, we can reduce the amount of wastewater. We remove the heavy metals using ion exchanger technology, and they can be recycled. In the end, the overall discarding of water is greatly reduced, meaning that the energy required for the total maintenance and operation of water and wastewater is hugely reduced.

We know your products are used in many different industries. One is surface treatment for automotive parts, in which you hold an 80% domestic market share. Other industries include electronics, steel, chemicals as you mentioned and many more. Are there any particular industries that you would like to further expand into?

We are present in the existing industries that you have mentioned, but as for new ones, we are open. Our current technology can be applied to other new industries as well. We are developing new technologies, so currently we are trying to find partners and markets through exhibitions and academic conferences. We have not done many partnerships in the past, so it would be a new challenge for us.


We know last year that you opened the Institute of Technology for your R&D in-house product technology, but also to engage in open innovation with industry and academia collaborators. How does this research institute elevate your R&D capabilities, and are you looking for any partnerships in overseas markets?

Our R&D focus currently is the filtration technology, and last year we established a technical research center. For the last three years, we have been working and collaborating with a professor in one of the universities in Osaka Metropolitan University. We have been developing a new technology, so we are now trying, together with academia, to make theory or logic of this technology, and find new applications. Soon we will be able to sell our first machinery to the company, but we want to expand from that and at the same time, we are actively participating in academic conferences such as a filtering academic conference in Koln, Germany, this February.

We are now trying to work on the existing fields in which we operate, but at the same time open up to new markets such as food and medicine. In order to penetrate new markets, partnering with companies is important.


One of your products is the Patrone series, a versatile lineup of MF (membrane filtration) devices introduced in 2017. What market needs did you identify when developing this series? How have you built upon its technologies over the last six years?

Patrone F is a high-performance MF membrane filtration system for small-scale wastewater treatment. In conventional wastewater treatment, solid-liquid separation is performed by a two-stage process that combines a sedimentation device and a sand filter. In addition, if the MF membrane filter media is clogged, you can perform chemical cleaning in-house, or you can use our MF membrane cleaning service. However, in many cases, the properties of the target liquid are unstable, and the clogging cycle of the MF membrane may be shortened. Currently, the application is limited, and we expect that the application will expand with future improvements.


When it comes to wastewater treatment, filter media can usually consist of activated carbon, kinetic degradation fluxion or even manganese dioxide. However, we know you offer the B-Type Auto Sand deep layer filter that actually uses sand as a filter medium to capture suspended solids. How can sand still be so effective compared to some of the latest materials?

It is a low technology, but sand is something that has been used in the past for filtration, and when we use high-tech membranes, you need energy and then you have to clean the membrane if it gets clogged, and that incurs costs. Sand actually is a simple, more risk-free way of filtering.


Moving forward, are there any countries or regions that you have identified for further expansion into, and what strategies will you employ to do so?

We have overseas experience of about 20-30 years, and we had many successes and failures. One of the failures was our Chinese company. At first when we established it, we were doing well, but after a few years, the needs of the Chinese customers changed, and we are only a company of 100 employees, so we needed to make a choice whether to follow the Chinese market and make new products or keep focusing on the Japanese market’s customer needs. We decided to keep our position as a focus-oriented Japanese company, so we wound up our Chinese company three years ago.

We are now more focused on Southeast Asia, since the demand there is similar to that of Japan, and also because Nikkei-affiliated companies are present there, so this year, we are planning to launch a recycling project in Malaysia using our Patrone. We are not confined to any specific areas, but we want to continue our Japanese business model and apply it wherever possible.


If we came back in five years, is there a certain goal or personal objective that you would like to have achieved by then?

My personal goal for our 80th anniversary is to expand our recycling business. Recycling contributes to carbon neutrality, so first, we will be launching our Malaysian recycling business. A few years ago, we established a recycling satellite location in Tokyo. We want to expand to many more locations within Japan. Also, I want to continue developing new technologies and finding new applications for the market, so when you come back for our 80-year anniversary, I will be able to share with you our new developments.

Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion