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Linear motion technologies get the global economy moving

Article - August 11, 2021

The increased use of automation technologies in production lines has caused greater demand for complex components, such as motion sensors, which are networked in order to work harmoniously with each other in the manufacturing process. We sat down with Toru Yamazaki, President of Nippon Bearing, who tells us more about the factors that led the company to become an international leader and innovator in the field of linear motion technologies.

Can you tell us more about the founding of Nippon Bearing?

Our company was established in 1939 by my grandfather. Initially, we were not so concerned with having our own branding. After a while however, we realized the importance of developing our own brand. To a large extent, not commercializing our own products and our own brand was equal to doing outsourced work on behalf of other companies. While this business model would be fine in times of economic boom, it makes it difficult to navigate economic downturns. Developing a proprietary product line allows companies to adapt to varying economic conditions. At first, the founder of the company suffered from this lack of branding because he initially started as an importer of slide plugs from the US and Europe. Eventually, he made engineering changes to the products he was importing and came up with a series of more popular and functional devices. These design alterations allowed him to launch his own brand and his own lineup; and that is basically how our business started.

 

Despite having lost their former dominance to manufacturers located in emerging markets in terms of mass-production, Japanese enterprises have remained leaders in the development of high-mix low-volume and niche technologies. How do you explain that evolution?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, no one expected Japan to recover so suddenly and powerfully. Part of that recovery was due to our ability to mass-produce consumer goods at a cheap cost, which turned Japan into one of the world’s factories. To a large extent, Japanese makers got back to the proper implementation of monozukuri decades after the War.

While it is true that Japan became a creative leader in industries such as gaming, our innovations [in the gaming sector] were born of traditional Japanese approaches to gaming! Consequently, one could argue that such innovations weren’t truly ‘disruptive’ as they stemmed from past experiences and previous perceptions. Disruptive innovations akin to that of western companies such as Tesla are not a hallmark of Japanese companies; at least not nowadays.

When it comes to the sectors of machining and machine tools, sectors that Japan still dominates, the resilience, innovativeness and scale of the Japanese automotive industry have been key drivers for growth. The stringent demands of automotive makers have shaped the product offering of Japanese suppliers. Rather than any groundbreaking innovation on the part of the suppliers themselves, the demand and growth of Japan’s automotive industry served as a powerful catalyst to propel the country’s entire supply chain forward.

 

The increased use of automation technologies in production lines has caused greater demand for complex components, such as motion sensors, that are networked in order to work in concert with each other. How is the increased adoption of automation technology impacting Japan and the manufacturing sector?

The increased adoption of automation technologies is a natural consequence of Japan’s shrinking population. The days of Chinese-style labor-intensive factories are over. I believe that now is the time for the Japanese industry to capitalize on its intrinsic cultural characteristic of monozukuri and to improve its production method.

While this belief in our own ability and work ethic may seem to outside observers as a ‘recent’ philosophy brought about by the success of our manufacturing industry, it is in fact a fundamental part of the traditional Japanese value-system and approach to problem-solving.

We know that manufacturers from emerging economies are trying to catch up with us in terms of technological competence.  To retain our competitive advantages, we must maintain a 10-to-20 year technological gap between us and them. We are keenly aware of their growing capabilities and we are working every day to maintain our technological edge. This realization explains Japanese enterprises’ commitment and large investments into R&D.

 

In an interview, Mr. Kentaro Hyakuno, COO & CMO of RAKUTEN, argued that “Japan has always excelled at developing new products, but it’s true weakness has been in commercializing its smart ideas.” How do you explain this paradox?

As an island country, many Japanese companies do not have connections with overseas markets nor do they have access to international marketing channels. In the past, we developed products with our domestic market in mind. However, Japan’s economic and industrial rise transformed local manufacturers into international players. Japanese enterprises were significant contributors to the establishment of global industry standards, and attracted large interest from overseas customers who had their own specific product requirements. Companies such as Panasonic were able to adapt and thrive internationally, and even to alter global market requirements.

When analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese manufacturing industry, it is important to keep in mind that 85% of all companies are SMEs. These mid-to-small size manufacturers are mainly focused on the needs of the domestic market and on improving their efficiency in supplying products that meet Japanese standards. These companies hope to grow bigger in Japan but you don't see many of them growing overseas. The spirit of Monozukuri is specific to Japan, and many SMEs feel it would be difficult to export that spirit to an overseas operation with a foreign workforce.

 

Since your company’s foundation in 1939, NIPPON BEARING has been a pioneer in the development of linear motion technology. Throughout your 82 year of history, what have been your main competitive advantages?

Our business has never been driven by a single ‘stand-out’ product. Instead, we have developed and released a series of different products boasting high functionality and reliability. To explain the strength of NIPPON BEARING, consider the difference between an elephant and an ant. An elephant is monolithic, very large and slow. In contrast, an ant is light and small, which allows it to react swiftly to change. We are more like the ant: industrious and adaptable. Depending on market conditions, we can switch from high quality to mass production instantaneously, thereby allowing us to fulfill our customers’ varying demands. This agility allows us to exploit opportunities that bigger companies are too slow to take advantage of.

So while we do have a number of unique products that help drive our business, the main factor behind our enduring success has been our dynamic and flexible approach to market changes.

 

NIPPON BEARING developed its proprietary STUDROLLER® system, a new engineering concept that provides complete prevention of roller cages slippage during operation. This innovative design has been used in a series of products, including the NB SLIDE WAY NV type. Can you tell us more about this technology and the advantages it shows in comparison to other products?

With financial support from the government, we started developing our STUDROLLER® technology 15 to 20 years ago. At the time, no engineer thought it was possible to build rack and pinion mechanisms onto a raceway. While other companies place the rack and pinion directly on the rail, we designed the STUDROLLER® system so that both components could be attached directly onto the raceway. This design is prohibitively complex for most companies due to the required level of precision involved. Instead, our competitors tend to produce plastic racks and pinion systems, which break more easily. As such, our product not only boasts a unique mechanism, but also a significantly longer life expectancy.

We started to sell this technology to companies present in the US. Interestingly, our clients did not understand how to properly utilize it at first. It took about 10 years for our customers to get accustomed to our innovative system. Once adopted, this technology became a key to our successful expansion in the US. Despite its adoption in the USA, it took longer for the rest of the world to start using our STUDROLLER® technology. Things really started to work out after the financial crisis. At the time, many companies were searching for similar products. However, our competitors were not able to supply this technology because the financial crisis had limited their cash flow, thereby tightening their R&D capabilities. We started aggressively marketing our STUDROLLER® products, and it worked out perfectly.

After the market realized that our development program worked effectively, we began producing a stainless steel version of this system. Thanks to the unique durability, precision and robustness of steel, our stainless steel STUDROLLER® products function perfectly for complex applications, including medical devices and aerospace. This system truly transformed the market, and that is a great source of pride.

 

NIPPON BEARING recently released EXRAIL®, a new roller guide with a rigidity 1.5 times higher than conventional roller guides, as well as superior motion, accuracy and better damping capabilities. What motivated you to develop this product?

Our customers were not entirely satisfied by the existing roller linear guides. For example, traditional roller guides did not have the motion accuracy required for complex applications. Furthermore, traditional products were sometimes not rigid enough and were therefore prone to deformation. In response to these technical hurdles, we increased our level of precision in the production process. This gave us the ability to make engineering changes and to address the parameters highlighted by our customers, which ultimately led to better quality products. Once we attained a certain level of quality, we maintained it so our customers could rely on our products. In fact, we got a “Good Design Award” for the EXRAIL® in 2017.

We’re now focused on lowering the cost of the EXRAIL®, which is higher than that of other existing roller guides. We are confident that we can keep the product competitive and remain a major player in the linear motion industry going forward.

 

In 2015 you opened an office in Malaysia as part of your overseas expansion plans. Why did you choose Malaysia as the location for this office?

The linear motion industry mainly consists of 5 markets: Japan, China, North America, Europe and Southeast Asia. There are emerging areas like India or Africa but we do not consider them among our targets at the moment. To properly understand local markets and local clients, it is important to have a physical presence in said region. Sending sales people and technicians directly to a client’s site will always be better than communicating via phone call. We underwent a lot of preparation to get that office opened and it has now been operating for six years.

 

Are you currently looking for co-creation partners?

If the opportunity presents itself we would love to collaborate with other companies and we are even willing to create open-innovation platforms with our overseas competitors. This approach reflects the spirit of the company’s founder, Mr Shinobu Yamazaki, who believed that the main purpose of an enterprise is to enrich the lives of its employees. Engaging in co-creation ventures with other organizations could be an important component in achieving that goal.

 

Your company has recently adopted a new logo. What is the ethos behind the logo and what message do you want it to convey?

The new logo has been professionally designed by a PR agency. We instructed them to reflect in the logo the three main pillars that support the concept of NIPPON BEARING’s monozukuri, namely, product design, manufacturing process, and sales & marketing. It is only when these three factors come together in harmony that we can fulfill the demands of our customers. Our new logo is a visual representation of that ethos.

We also feel strongly that the spirit of our founder has guided us to this point and that although the logo is new, our values and core beliefs are still very much steeped in the history of the company.

 

From robotics to machinery and medical devices, Motion Control plays a crucial role in modern industry. Is there a specific application or product you are particularly proud of?

One of the great tools developed with the help of our products is the surgical robot arm. This arm is designed to facilitate surgery, it has a minimally invasive approach, and it is designed to be remotely controlled by surgeons. A surgical robot arm requires extremely precise movement as it is often used in procedures such as cardiac valve repair. Knowing that our STUDROLLER® devices are used to save lives fills us with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. At the moment, surgical machines are operated remotely and they enable surgeons to conduct complex surgeries from a country different to the one the patient is currently in; an incredible achievement!

We believe it is only a matter of time until fully functioning surgical robots become widely adopted. There is a shortage of qualified doctors globally, and this technology is continuously advancing. Things we once only dreamed about, such as smartphones, have already become reality, so fully automated surgery is surely achievable at some stage in future.

 

As NIPPON BEARING’s third generation of Presidents, is there a particular objective you would like to achieve during your tenure?

The most important stakeholder of any company is its employees; so giving them more happiness and enriching their lives is a key part of my goal. Numerically speaking, I’d like to increase their salary by 50% over the next 5 to 10 years. I deeply believe that a company does not exist for the exclusive benefit of a few executives or of a founding family. The employees must be valued and must be made to feel an integral part of the firm. Again, a company belongs to the employees.

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