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Zuiko: the leader in disposable hygiene product manufacturing systems

Interview - September 8, 2023

Zuiko is dedicated to developing ideas and devices that contribute to society, as well as to environmental initiatives like diaper recycling.

TOYOSHI UMEBAYASHI, PRESIDENT OF ZUIKO CORPORATION
TOYOSHI UMEBAYASHI | PRESIDENT OF ZUIKO CORPORATION

What do you believe to be your core strengths or competencies that set your company apart from regional manufacturing competitors?

I don’t deny that there has been a decline in the Japanese manufacturing sector, and other Asian countries are catching up. However, Japan has been good at combining different elements to create something unique. In terms of true innovation, countries like the United States and Germany have been successful.

On the other hand, Japan has been strong in the application of technology and the speed of manufacturing, but China has recently surpassed Japan in speed. When my father was working, Japan was the fastest, but the rate of change in technology has become very fast, making it challenging to keep up.

Japanese manufacturers tend to think that the best quality makes the best product, but this may not always be the best approach. A good product is one that sells well and is recognized by the market. Many Japanese manufacturers have misunderstood this concept.

 

You also mentioned innovation and how the United States and Germany excel in disruptive innovation, while Japan is strong in incremental innovation with a customer-centric approach. Your company is an excellent example of how this approach can respond to new social needs as they arise. An example of this is the growing market in Japan for elderly people who need diapers. Aging societies are not just a challenge for Japan, but also for Germany, China, the United States, and many other advanced nations. Can you share with us some of the challenges and opportunities that working in the world's oldest society presents for your company?

Personally, I believe the declining population poses a significant challenge for us. By 2050, the population may be half of what it is now. The biggest issue is that Japan has traditionally valued the pure blood of the nation, which is not a good thing for future growth.

To move forward, we need to accept more immigrants from other countries. Additionally, we need to evaluate our current technologies and manufacturing processes to find the most valuable and essential ones to compete in the global market.

While the market for adult diapers will continue to grow, other countries will catch up soon. It is essential to understand both global and local markets in the manufacturing sector, and to reduce costs, to remain competitive.

 

We talked about having valuable technology and recognizing it. I think another great example of valuable technology that we want to learn more about is how you're supporting new social needs, such as a more sustainable and carbon-neutral society. I'm, of course, alluding to the SFD-600, the diaper recycling machine that turns disposable diaper waste into a material for biomass energy. I'm hoping you could give us a little breakdown of how this project came to be. Is this kind of recycling system something you plan to or are already offering to overseas clients?

The issue of diaper waste and its impact on the environment is a big problem globally. It accounts for 8% of household waste in Japan, 12% in Malaysia, and 10% in Europe. We want to convert as much of it as possible into an energy source for SDG purposes.

Diapers, of course, contribute to human health and wellness. However, they also create waste. When the waste is burned or put into a landfill, it produces CO2 or methane gas. We want to do something about it, and that's why we developed this machine.

A few locations in the domestic market have already applied this machine, and we are currently in negotiations with some European countries. Whenever we introduce this equipment, we don't just want to introduce the machine, but we want to propose the scheme as a total solution.

 

Is it being received well? You said you were in Italy last week. Was it related to this? How are they receiving this kind of technology overseas?

My concept is local production for local consumption. Ultimately, I want to have a production base in Europe, just like I did in China. That’s our approach globally. I think there’s a tendency, especially for large Japanese companies, to bring in their whole infrastructure to the local market, but I want to create a production base locally. I want to localize production.

 

Another one of the valuable technologies that you mentioned is the new elastic material processing technology that allows for rubber bonding without using adhesives. Can you tell us a little more about this specific technology and how it makes the user experience better?

My senior colleagues have told me that the most important thing about making diapers or sanitary napkins is that they feel comfortable. However, different people want different quality or feeling. Some have dry skin tendencies while others don't. It's important to know the difference in those needs, and respond to them accordingly.

 

We've heard from many manufacturers that when they localize production, while preserving the technology, finding local partners in that locale has been the most critical point in making that venture a success. Even if you have the best machinery or technology, if you can't properly integrate yourself into that community, it can be very difficult to find meaningful success. Could you talk to us a little bit about the importance of finding these local partnership opportunities as part of your expansion?

Of course, it's crucial for us to identify potential partners, particularly local people. I place greater emphasis on meeting them than solely relying on data. Communication is essential in finding the best partner, and I don't mind traveling to remote or distant countries to achieve this. No matter how many times it takes, I am willing to go there to meet with key individuals and find the right partner.

 

You mentioned your diverse global expansion, not just focused on Europe or North America, but also in Southeast Asia and Turkey, with eight bases worldwide. Today, I understand that you have ambitions to establish a local production base in Europe. Could you elaborate more on your vision for your international development, both in terms of a timeline and the specific regions or locations that you’re prioritizing?

Regarding the expansion of our baby diaper and feminine care product machines, we aim to enter African countries quickly, but we need to find the right country to begin our expansion. That's our priority.

We are also targeting India, a rapidly growing market, but we need to consider cultural differences between Japanese culture and Indian culture, as there are many mismatches. It's important to localize our technologies for these different countries. Of course, our diaper businesses are the core pillar of our company, but we would also like to keep growing our other businesses as well.



We've talked about your historically core pillar being diaper manufacturing machinery, but you've also expanded your technology into different areas such as sanitary napkins, feminine hygiene products, and diaper recycling technology and machinery. What do you see as your next frontier? Are there any new applications or arenas that you plan to expand your technologies into in the future?

Our next target is the medical field, where there is room for improvement in efficiency, particularly where manual processes are still used. We can take advantage of our technology in the medical field, especially where we can achieve cost savings. Many medical devices are now made in Southeast Asian countries and exported to other countries mainly because of the cost efficiency. However, if it's cost-effective, we prefer to manufacture in the US or Europe.

 

As you celebrate your 60-year anniversary, let’s imagine that we come back five years from now, for your 65th anniversary, and have this interview with you again. What is your dream for this company and what goals would you like to accomplish by then?

My dream is to follow in my father's footsteps and to retire from this company after a successful career. You talked about the decline of the Japanese manufacturing industry for the last 20 years, and in looking back at my career over that time, I believe that one of our biggest failures has been the lack of accumulation and tracking of data. We didn't keep track of data, or we lost data. It's not just about the technology but the accumulation of data that is essential, and I think it's something that Japan needs to catch up on, going forward.

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