Ink production in Japan has a rich history and deep cultural significance. However, led by companies such as Teikoku Printing Inks, the sector is adopting flexibility in its monozukuri principles to remain competitive. We speak to president Nobunari Sawanobori to learn more.
In the past 25 years, we’ve seen the rise of cheaper competitors such as China, South Korea, or Taiwan. What can Japanese small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do to face this stiff price competition?
Regarding the major ink companies, they not only work as ink producers but also as comprehensive chemical production companies. They are not trying to compete with Chinese ink products because the price of ink is very low with a lot of variance in quality. Japanese companies are trying to differentiate themselves by using the knowledge of ink and different chemicals to provide different types of services. We, as a company, not only manufacture ink but also engage in color matching different types of chemicals to create new colors which are requested by our customers. Japanese customers also have to focus on adding high value to our products, a trend we are pursuing as well.
How do you think monozukuri and the Japanese commitment to quality has made Japan able to compete on the world stage?
In the production of anything, choosing the right high-quality materials from Japan and around the world is key. Constantly working with high-quality materials has made us really unable to work with low-quality materials, which in some ways can be a disadvantage. Our current challenge is closely related to that where we want to develop adaptability and be able to work with lower quality material and still produce good products. Monozukuri is very important for Japan, and to us specifically because our elders worked extremely hard to build the economy and country back up after such a devastating war and monozukuri is how they did that, so we believe their soul and character is within the practices of monozukuri.
Which milestones in technological advancement have allowed your company to be in the position it is today?
The first of these would be in the 1970s with the production of ink for screen printing. Before then, we only were producing ink for newspapers and other paper materials.
In what way have your various products made your company more competitive?
We have two production line-ups, a standard collection of products and a custom-made line up. The former applies to many different industries but the latter is hyper-specific to a client’s needs and are highly demanding. When we are working on a custom product, our R&D, production, and sales teams are challenged but acquire a huge deal of knowledge and from there can expand what other products we can make. This ability to apply what we learn with each project and expand our production base is what has made us competitive and successful.
How does Teikoku Ink’s custom-made process work?
Sometimes a customer will come to us with just one spec they need the product to have, like a certain percent of infrared or a certain color, which is just one part of the result so catering to their needs based on that is quite difficult. Internally though, we go through the process of making a prototype, show it to the customer, and then have a series of back and forths until we reach the final product.
In the initial stage, we have no idea what the final application of our custom product will be. What is key to a well-made custom product is communicating well with clients so we can understand what their final image or application is for the product. For us, knowing if our product will be in a button pushed numerous times or in a product that is frequently dropped, is key to producing it well. While we cannot name the companies we have and are working with, we have worked with a very well-known automobile company. For this, we worked with the car’s automatic stop feature, which is only possible if there is a sensor in the car. The customer had asked us for these parts of the sensor to become invisible without changing their emblem design. We achieved the customer’s needs.
What specific technological capabilities of your company help you produce your products?
At our company, we say our inks can adhere to anything but water and air. We truly have the technology that can print anything on anything in any color desired by our customers. To add value, we have other functions and other capabilities. But, chemistry and physics are also required. We create adhesives on top of our chemical work, which requires mixing.
What are the company’s main priorities, current projects, and hopes for your R&D department?
We do basic research on color and application, as well as on new technologies that continuously develop around us. We also research mass production because our clients will occasionally ask for large quantities. But our main focus is on sensors. These sensors are used in automatic driving or even vending machines where an invisible lens detects the customer’s age and gender information to offer purchase suggestions. Our R&D operates also with the basic principle that we are making products, especially inks, that are decorative but also functional and allow the latest sensor to penetrate. We do not come up with our products often, but customers come to us with requests to have something made for them.
How does the company ensure that quality remains high at production centers abroad?
Firstly, we focus on training our people. We keep a very strict and standardized production protocol across our factories. Secondly, we send material to our factories from Japan, this ensures that no matter where something is produced, it still will come out the same way as it would in Japan. Thirdly, is the technology. Our teams from Japan start the factories abroad to get them running and also to talk to clients so it is known that our quality control is Japanese.
What is the role of foreign markets within your gross strategy?
Currently, we are focused on the Chinese market based on their high demand for ink. But the US and EU provide new business opportunities because that is where designs for products originate. China and South East Asia is mainly for production. To expand into the US and EU, we are dispatching our Japanese staff to those regions and having them talk to clients. Our salespeople then take those clients’ needs to the production stage. But, our disadvantages are the geographic distance and time zone difference. This has prompted us to think about an M&A or joint venture with a local US or EU company so that we can also be on the ground.
What kind of companies do you look for when thinking of M&As and joint ventures?
As a prerequisite, the company must be in the ink or printing industry. The company should have a common philosophy to ours, like taking care of our products until the final application and making sure that customers are satisfied beyond their initial hopes.
What are your main competitive advantages?
What we can bring to a company that we will potentially partner with is our people and their knowledge. Through an exchange of personnel, we’d like to share knowledge, experience, and be on the same page in terms of goals. Our technology is also our strength, but this would mean little if we did not have our attitude of never giving up. Even if the customer says their request is probably too difficult, we never stop researching and committing ourselves to find a solution. Our persistence is a big asset for us.
If we return in three years, what would you like to tell us, what are your dreams for the company and what kind of legacy would you like to leave?
I’d like to be able to say that our company is more well known as a good company. We don’t need to have exponentially greater sales, but we want to meet our customer’s needs and give them the attention they deserve. Through this process, we want to expand. At the same time, I want our colleagues to want to continue working here and enjoy their work here. As for my legacy, I’d like to be known for being faithful to our company oath and I’d like to make sure the company remains faithful.