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Yoshiizumi provides cutting edge food preparation machinery

Interview - September 6, 2023

Founded in 1955, Yoshiizumi Industry Corporation has a unique approach to culinary production, and is committed to preserving Japan's food culture, combining tradition with advanced technology.

KEIEKI SASAKI, PRESIDENT OF YOSHIIZUMI INDUSTRY CORPORATION
KEIEKI SASAKI | PRESIDENT OF YOSHIIZUMI INDUSTRY CORPORATION

What do you believe to be your company's core strengths or competencies that set you apart and differentiate you from your regional competitors in this field?

For the last 20 years Japan has been famous for mass production, especially in consumer electronics, videos and so on. We used to deliver those mass-produced products to the world. However, since the bubble burst, that leading position has been taken by other countries like China or Vietnam. In terms of mass production, we gave the crown to other countries.

Our washoku (food production methodology) has drawn a lot of attention from the world. It's recognized as delicious and healthy food, and among all different cuisines like Chinese and French food. Japanese washoku has got a lot of attention, and it's become world heritage recently.

In that context, we are seeing a transition from volume to quality. In terms of volume, maybe you might imagine opening a pack of potato chips, or using canned food, but in Japan, looking into washoku, we place a lot of importance on the seasons, and also, different places have different food materials, and we have a lot of different methods of cooking.

We are trying to support these detailed methods related to washoku with our products, and we are supporting manual cooking with automated cooking methods using our technology. We really need to shift our focus from volume to quality, as we have less and less population going forward.

In terms of volume, maybe countries like China or India need to focus on that, and on the products that are used for mass production, but in Japan, we should focus more on the quality, or the true sense of the food when we pursue production for the food industry.

For Japanese manufacturers to survive going forward, we should rather focus on the small-lot production of products that are unique, rather than mass production. Even though the lots are small, there must be customers who will be satisfied with that kind of unique product, and I think that's something we should pursue for monozukuri.

 

You mentioned briefly in your answer that you want to preserve the techniques and craftsmanship with your products. We're really curious to learn a little more about how your machines can do so. We know, for example, your fish filet cutters have a top domestic market share, and are said to be able to cut the fish as if it was cut by a master craftsman. Can you please elaborate on this point for us, and explain how your technology and your products can help preserve Japan’s food culture?

You talked about our cutting machine for fish. When you imagine the shape of the fish, the central body part is bigger compared to the tail part. Japanese craftsmen can cut the fish evenly in terms of weight, not just size.

In Western countries, like the United States, if you ask somebody to cut a piece of fish to a certain size, they will do so. However, in Japan, they are able to cut the fish into precise weights and then prepare it in a way that brings out its unique characteristics.

They understand the differences in taste between the different parts of the fish, such as the juiciness of the body and the distinctive flavor of the tail. With this knowledge, they are able to prepare the fish in the best possible way, and this is a unique technology for Japan, and we are trying to automate it using our machines.

For example, there is a cutting method called Katsura-muki for white radish, where you slice it into very thin, film-like pieces and then cut them into small pieces. This is a unique method of cutting and cooking in Japan, and we have developed many such techniques for different foods and materials.

Speaking of fish, while in Western countries it is usually boiled or baked, in Japan there is a special way of eating it raw, known as sashimi. This requires a specific cutting technique, and there are also other methods such as baking only the skin or cooking it in hot water known as shabu-shabu, where thin strips of fish are cooked in this way.

There are so many different ways to cook different kinds of foods, and this is a very unique characteristic of Japanese cuisine. We would like to preserve these different methods using our technologies. We are focused on developing specialized machines to preserve these unique cooking methods and ensure our customers' satisfaction.

Another example is eggs. While in other countries, eggs are typically boiled or scrambled. In Japan, there is another way to eat them where you crack the egg and add soy sauce on top before placing it on rice. Raw eggs are also used in dishes like sukiyaki.  This unique culture of using raw eggs is possible in Japan because the eggs are very clean. We pay close attention to the cooking methods of food, and strive to preserve these unique cultural practices through our technologies.

Yoshiizumi's machines are equipped with sensors that replace the human eye, allowing the machine to recognize food in the same way that humans recognize it with their eyes, and the various cooking techniques that make up Japanese food are reproduced on the machine.



We know that you've been using advanced imaging technology to be able to instantly calculate the way to cut the produce, or the fish, in the optimal way, instantly.  Can you tell us more about how you're using digital technologies as a way to preserve these very deliberate, delicate kinds of cutting methods?

Speaking about one of our AI digital technologies that we are developing internally, let's take the example of the Haxhi Chinese cabbage, where we need to remove the core. Humans can easily identify where the core is by looking at the Chinese cabbage. but machines cannot. They just identify it as a round shaped vegetable. So, we are using AI technology to identify the core.

It is easier to improve AI technology for the automotive sector because they have mass production. However, for the food industry, developing AI to identify the core of a vegetable doesn’t draw much attention, so we decided to develop it in-house.

Regarding our manufacturing process, we internally manufacture everything, including components, AI, and software. In the case of automotive, their components are cheap because they are produced in large quantities. However, for us, if we can sell 10 machines per year, it is good enough. If we can sell 50, it will be a big hit. So, the cost of producing components is high for us, and outsourcing to overseas companies for a small order of 50-100 products would be costly. The same goes for outsourcing in the domestic market. Hence, we decided to internally produce the components and AI to lower the cost and make it profitable.

In order to produce the machine at the cheapest possible cost, we decided to internally produce the components and the AI. We plan to sell 10 to 20 machines per year, so to make the venture profitable, manufacturing everything in-house is the best way to lower costs, and that's why we have design and development teams. If we outsource the development of AI, it will cost more than 10 million yen. However, doing it internally will allow us to reduce costs significantly, and we can provide maintenance and deliver the products directly to customers. We take care of the end-to-end process for the customers, from development to delivery, so if there is any problem with our machine, we just go there immediately and do the maintenance, or work on the components.

Our focus is on food processing machines that require a lot of attention to detail. However, there are a lot more business areas which require the same level of detail as well. We believe that the Japanese manufacturing sector needs to specialize in detailed areas to survive in the future. Mass production is no longer sustainable.

Although we started selling overseas, we still have many requests from the domestic market. Our development team is working hard to address these requests, but it takes time to finish the product.

Expanding overseas is particularly challenging due to different food cultures. For example, many countries don't eat raw fish or octopus, which is sometimes called Devil Fish, and sea cucumber is not a common dish in most countries. Therefore, we cannot bring our technology to every country.

Additionally, Japan has a demographic problem, with a shrinking population, and the food industry factories are often seen as dangerous or risky places to work. Thus, there are many demands for automation.

While we are hard-pressed to meet domestic demand, we believe that at some point in the future, other countries will start consuming more sashimi, or raw food. When that time comes, we are confident that our machines will support that new culture, but at this moment, we are hard pressed with the domestic demand.

 

Are you interested in forming business alliances with local companies in some of the areas you have recently entered?

If we want to find local partners, we need to ensure that they can also be profitable, and we need to develop a plan for this. As I mentioned earlier, we are developing AI to identify the core for Chinese cabbage. If we collaborate with a partner, it may cost around 30 to 50 million yen. However, if we handle it internally, we can save the cost.

Moreover, since what we are doing is unique and we produce in small lots, we may not require a partner frequently. If we were to mass-produce, a local partner might be valuable to us. However, as we are producing only one or two units, it would be challenging for a partner to find a way to collaborate profitably. Therefore, we decided to handle the entire process from A to Z ourselves. This is Yoshiizumi's new method of monozukuri.

As I mentioned earlier, we are sticking to in-house development. When it comes to the cellphone industry, the iPhone dominates the market, and they constantly strive to come up with better solutions and devices to meet the ever-increasing demand. That’s the market characteristics for cell phones. However, in the food industry, customers are willing to wait for the product to be completed, so to cater to such customers, we can spend more time developing cost-effective solutions.

Our market is not demanding a high volume of products like 100 or 500 units. Instead, we focus on selling just two to three or 10 units per year, even if there is demand from only two to three customers. That's how we cater to our customers, and the demand for delicious food will never disappear.

The food industry is totally different from other industries like cell phones or PCs, where Apple and Microsoft are dominating, and the products have a limited period of demand. For instance, Panasonic still produces PCs tailored for the construction industry, which has a constant demand for unbreakable products at construction sites. Therefore, there is always a niche market with specific needs, and we aim to cater to such customers who value our products.

 

What will be your next step in developing new overseas markets?

We would like to target countries with a higher income standard, where a lot of customers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality washoku. These types of customers can be found in countries like Japan, the United States, and European countries. In Europe, there are Michelin guides that showcase very good restaurants, which are typically quite expensive.

However, there are people who are willing to pay for such good food or wines. Therefore, if we want to reach such customers, we should target the United States or Europe rather than Southeast Asia. We are eager to expand to the United States as soon as possible and deliver our delicious food there.

 

If we were to come back on the last day of your presidency, is there a certain goal or ambition you would like to have completed by that date?

In the food processing industry, there are many small companies, including ours, but our goal is to become one of the top ten companies in the world. Actually, we aim to be in the top three, or even better, we want to be the number one company. There are many areas of food processing, such as packaging, cutting, and others, and we want to be the best in each of these areas.

Recently, we have noticed that many overseas tourists visit convenience stores like 7-Eleven and purchase their food, and they seem to be very satisfied with the quality. We believe that this is due to our machines that enable the mass production of delicious food. As we continue to pursue automation in the food industry, we want to contribute to the industrialization of the production of good food.

In Japan, we can already see the success of this in convenience stores, but in the United States, it is difficult to find such good food in convenience stores. However, thanks to our technologies, we can provide the same level of quality food in convenience stores all around the world. As we continue to develop better machines, this will naturally lead us to success in the global market.

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